Princeton Study: Clothes Make Powerful First Impression

To make a good impression in business, wear expensive clothes. That’s the upshot of a recent Princeton University study that showed people perceive a person’s competence partly based on subtle economic cues emanating from the person’s clothing. The study was published in Nature Human Behaviour. These judgments are made in a matter of milliseconds, and are very hard to avoid.

In nine studies conducted by the researchers, people rated the competence of faces wearing different upper-body clothing. Clothing perceived as “richer” by an observer — whether it was a T-shirt, sweater, or other top — led to higher competence ratings of the person pictured than similar clothes judged as “poorer,” the researchers found.

Given that competence is often associated with social status, the findings suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities — simply from looking at their clothing.

“Poverty is a place rife with challenges. Instead of respect for the struggle, people living in poverty face a persistent disregard and disrespect by the rest of society,” said study co-author Eldar Shafir, a professor of behavioral science and public policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “We found that such disrespect — clearly unfounded, since in these studies the identical face was seen as less competent when it appeared with poorer clothing — can have its beginnings in the first tenth of a second of an encounter.”

“Wealth inequality has worsened since the late 1980s in the United States. Now the gap between the top 1 percent and the middle class is over 1,000,000 percent, a mind-numbing figure,” said lead author DongWon Oh, who worked on the study as a Ph.D. student at Princeton and is now a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at New York University. “Other labs’ work has shown people are sensitive to how rich or poor other individuals appear. Our work found that people are susceptible to these cues when judging others on meaningful traits, like competence, and that these cues are hard, if not impossible, to ignore.”

Oh and Shafir, who is the inaugural director of Princeton’s Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy, conducted the study with Alexander Todorov, professor of psychology at Princeton.

The researchers began with images of 50 faces, each wearing clothes rated as “richer” or “poorer” by an independent group of judges who were asked, “How rich or poor does this person look?” Based on those ratings, the researchers selected 18 black and 18 white face-clothing pairs displaying the most prominent rich-poor differences. These were then used across the nine studies.

To make sure the clothes did not portray extreme wealth or poverty, the researchers asked a separate group of judges to describe the clothing seen in the images. The descriptions revealed very mild differences, and extremely positive or negative words were rare. The words “rich” or “poor,” or their synonyms, occurred only once out of a total 4,725 words.

Participants were then presented with half of the faces wearing “richer” upper-body clothing, and the other half with “poorer” clothing. They were told that the researchers were interested in how people evaluate others’ appearances and were asked to rate the competence of the faces they saw, relying on their “gut feelings,” on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 9 (extremely).

Participants saw the images for three different lengths of time, ranging from about one second to approximately 130 milliseconds, which is barely long enough to realize one saw a face, Shafir said. Remarkably, ratings remained consistent across all time durations.

In several of the studies that followed, the researchers made tweaks to the original design, but the results remained consistent: Faces were judged as significantly more competent when the clothing was perceived as “richer.” This judgment was made almost instantaneously and also when more time was provided. When warned that clothing had nothing to do with competence, or explicitly asked to ignore what the person in the photo was wearing, the biased competency judgments persisted.

“To overcome a bias, one needs to not only be aware of it, but to have the time, attentional resources, and motivation to counteract the bias,” the researchers wrote. “In our studies, we warned participants about the potential bias, presented them with varying lengths of exposure, gave them additional information about the targets, and offered financial incentives, all intended to alleviate the effect. But none of these interventions were effective.”

An important concern for future psychological work is how to transcend first impressions, the researchers conclude.

“Knowing about a bias is often a good first step,” Shafir said. “A potential, even if highly insufficient, interim solution may be to avoid exposure whenever possible. Just like teachers sometimes grade blindly so as to avoid favoring some students, interviewers and employers may want to take what measures they can, when they can, to evaluate people, say, on paper so as to circumvent indefensible yet hard to avoid competency judgments. Academic departments, for example, have long known that hiring without interviews can yield better scholars. It’s also an excellent argument for school uniforms.”

Management Moves

Thomas R. Churchelow

New Jersey Utilities Association, 50 West State Street, Suite 1006, Trenton 08608. 609-392-1000. Thomas R. Churchelow, president.

The New Jersey Utilities Association, an interest group, has named Thomas R. Churchelow to serve as its next president.

“We are pleased to have Tom at the helm of NJUA as the association continues its important work on behalf of New Jersey’s investor-owned utilities,” said Jim Fakult, chairman of NJUA’s board and president of Jersey Central Power & Light. “Tom’s years of experience and insight into utility law and policy, understanding of NJUA member companies, and reputation amongst decision makers in New Jersey as a known resource on utilities issues will be especially important as the industry addresses new challenges and opportunities in all sectors.”

Churchelow joined NJUA in 2013 as director of government and public affairs, providing legal and policy analysis and developing and implementing the association’s legislative, regulatory and public affairs strategy. Prior to that, he served as a senior legislative counsel in the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, serving as a nonpartisan aide to the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.

Churchelow received a law degree from Rutgers and a bachelor’s degree from Southern Connecticut School State. Churchelow succeeds Andrew Hendry, who served as president and CEO of NJUA for more than six years.

New Jersey Business & Industry Association, 10 West Lafayette Street, Trenton 08608. 609-393-7707. Michele Siekerka, president.

Christopher Emigholz

Christopher Emigholz, a state budget expert with nearly 20 years of legislative experience, will join the New Jersey Business & Industry Association as vice president of Government Affairs in Taxation and Economic Development.

Emigholz, who is currently the associate executive director/budget director for the Senate Republican Office, took over NJBIA’s advocacy efforts on economic development and taxation issues affecting the business community, effective December 9.

“Christopher’s career has been focused on improving New Jersey’s business climate and making our state more affordable,” said NJBIA President & CEO Michele Siekerka.

“His legislative experience, including the past eight years he has spent working on tax, budget and economic development policy in the Senate, will make him a tremendous resource to the businesses whose interests NJBIA fights for every day,” she said.

Emigholz joins a distinguished and respected NJBIA Government Affairs team that includes Chief of Government Affairs Chrissy Buteas, Vice Presidents of Government Affairs Frank Robinson, Michael Wallace and Ray Cantor, and Director of Economic Policy Research Nicole Sandelier.

Prior to joining the Senate staff in 2012, Emigholz served as director of the state Department of Education’s Office of Legislative Affairs (2010-2012) and as NJBIA’s associate vice president of Education & Workforce Development Policy (2005-2010).

“I have worked to support the needs of New Jersey’s business community in every job I have had for nearly two decades in Trenton,” Emigholz said. “I am very excited about this opportunity to return to NJBIA and to serve its mission of advocating for the best interests of New Jersey business.”

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Emigholz earned his masters’ degree in public policy from Rutgers.

Leaving Town

Synametrics, 9 Schalks Crossing Road, Plainsboro Village Center, Suite 726, Plainsboro 08536. 877-796-2638. Imran Hussain,

The software development company for enterprise IT has left its office on Schalks Crossing Road in Plainsboro. The company is a division of IndusSoft, a Delhi, India-based software firm. It lists headquarters as Monroe on its website.

Crosstown Moves

Invidi Technologies Corporation, 202 Carnegie Center, Suite 204, Princeton 08540. 609-951-3900. David Downey, president and CEO.

The Canada-based company, which targets television advertising to specific households, has moved from Route 1 North to Carnegie Center.

Symbiance, 51 Everett Drive, Suite B20, Princeton Junction 08550. 609-243-9050. Shawki Salem Ph.D, president.

Symbiance, which provides clinical research services to pharmaceutical companies, has moved from Clarksville Road to Everett Drive in Princeton Junction.


Robert Carithers Duncan Jr., 90, on November 25. He was a research physicist at RCA Laboratories in Princeton. Services will be held on Saturday, December 14, at the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton.

Daniel William Gaskill, 66, on December 6. He owned Princeton Driving School for 40 years and was past president of the Driving School Association of New Jersey.

Timothy E. Miller, 63, on November 28. He was co-owner of Fred Miller and Sons Electrical Contractors and a past member of the National Board of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

Eleanor Nini Perone, 95, on November 26. She was a longtime receptionist with law firm Mason, Griffin, and Pierson.

Irving Leighton Newlin, 96, on November 25. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was president of the Princeton Association for Human Rights. He also worked for the U.S. Postal Service and Peterson’s Guides in Lawrence.

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