20 December 2019

Clothes Make the Man

Welcome back. In the 1950s, there was a clothes retailer in Upstate New York that used a sales pitch beginning with “Clothes make the man.” I thought it was Robert Hall Clothes but can’t find any record of that. In any event, Robert Hall went bankrupt in 1977, and the pitch wasn’t particularly original. 
Mark Twain’s quote regarding men’s clothes
(multiple websites, taken from www.azquotes.com/quote/298620).
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) used the adage, as did Shakespeare long before (in Hamlet, Polonius to this son: “For the apparel oft proclaims the man”). It's been traced to an annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs, Collectanea Adagiorum veterum (1517-1521) by Erasmus, and apparently, variations of the adage appear in obscure works in the 1400s.

Lest you doubt the wisdom of the adage or judge it no longer applies, Princeton University researchers recently provided ample truth. (The lead author was affiliated with New York University when the study was published.)

They conducted a series of tests to demonstrate that cues conveyed by “richer” or “poorer” looking clothing, otherwise clean and intact, affect perceived competence. Like it or not, people expect individuals of higher socioeconomic status to be more competent.

Selecting Test Headshots
The researchers began with 50 headshot photos of amateur male actors, 25 Black, 25 White, with no distinct facial hair, accessories or makeup. Each face was combined with two sets of clothes--“richer” clothes selected from images of online modern American-style apparel retailers and “poorer” clothes from images of online vintage clothing stores.

Example of “rich” clothes headshot (from
supplement, www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0782-4).

A group of judges rated the 50 headshots according to “How rich or poor does this person look?” The researchers then used the 18 Black and 18 White face-clothing pairs that showed the largest rich-poor rating differences. Those differences were very subtle. When an independent group was asked to describe the clothes, no one labeled them notably rich or poor.
Example of “poor” clothes headshot (from
supplement, www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0782-4).

Rating Headshots for Competence
The researchers enlisted a total of 271 university undergraduates and community members, 24 or 36 per test, to rate the 36 faces for competence (mean age of participants varied from about 20 to 25, mostly female). Two additional tests were done at a shopping mall, each with about 50 older, non-student adults (mean age 39, mostly female), to gauge the replicability of the findings.

To rate competence, participants were presented an image of a face with “richer” or “poorer” clothes, though one test involved choosing the more competent of a pair of faces.

The tests employed different measures to try to reduce the effect of clothing cues. These included varying the time the photos were seen by participants, providing information about the photographed person’s profession and income, replacing formal clothing with more casual clothing, advising participants to ignore the clothing, warning participants that there was no relationship between clothing and competence and offering financial incentives for accuracy.

Wrap Up
Across the tests, the participants rated faces significantly more competent when seen with richer clothes. That outcome persisted regardless of measures taken to reduce the effect, even when headshots were seen for as short as 129 milliseconds.

The researchers describe the findings as demonstrating the uncontrollable effect of economic status cues on perception. Because the context surrounding a face is spontaneously encoded when making social judgements, people of lower economic status are perceived as less competent. To overcome the bias, one needs to be aware of it and have the time, attentional resources and motivation to counteract it.

I don’t question the results, yet I doubt I could reliably recognize richer versus poorer clothes unless the difference was extreme. Thanks for stopping by.

Tracing the adage “Clothes make the man”: medium.com/@alex_65670/what-is-the-origin-of-clothes-make-the-man-7f75e070bf45
Study of the effect of clothes on perceived competence in Nature Human Behaviour: www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0782-4
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-12/puww-ias120919.php

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