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A famous saying by Dolores del Rio goes like this:

“Take care of your inner, spiritual beauty. That will reflect in your face.”

It is a fact that the face is the mirror of our personality. A new study by the University of Toronto finds that people can reliably tell if someone is rich or poor just by looking at their faces. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, this research postulated that there’s a good chance you can tell if someone is rich or poor just by looking at them.

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Researchers found that subjects were able to correctly guess if people were rich or poor an astounding 68% of the time, just from pictures of their faces. This is incredible!

The researchers also concluded that people with money tend to live happier, less stressful lives compared to those struggling to make ends meet. And so, there are subtle “emotion patterns” carved into faces, especially around the eyes and mouth.

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Thora Bjornsdottir,  a graduate student of the Faculty of Arts & Science, at the University of Toronto and co-author of the study told a media outlet that:

“The relationship between well-being and social class has been demonstrated by previous research.”

In general, people with money tend to live happier, less anxious lives compared to those struggling to make ends meet. She and her team demonstrated “that these well-being differences are actually reflected in people’s faces.”

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Bjornsdottir and her co-author, psychology professor Nicholas O. Rule, had undergraduate subjects of various ethnicities look at gray-scale photographs of 80 white males and 80 white females. None showed any tattoos or piercings. Half of the photos were of people who made over $150,000 a year, which they designated as upper class, and the other half were people who made under $35,000, or working class.

When the subjects were asked to guess the class of the people in the photos, they did so correctly 68 percent of the time, significantly higher than random chance.

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“I didn’t think the effects would be quite as strong, especially given how subtle the differences are”, Rule said in an interview. “That’s the most surprising part of the study to me.”

According to Bjornsdottir:

“People are not really aware of what cues they are using when they make these judgments.If you ask them why, they don’t know. They are not aware of how they are doing this.”

But the researchers wanted to know, so they zoomed in on facial features. They found that subjects were still able to guess correctly when they just looked at the eyes, and the mouth was an even better clue. But neither isolated part was as a reliable an indicator as the whole face.

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The effect is “likely due to emotion patterns becoming etched into their faces over time,” says Bjornsdottir. The chronic contraction of certain muscles can actually lead to changes in the structure of your face that others can pick up on, even if they are not aware of it.

Just as interestingly, the researchers found the ability to read a person’s social class only applies to their neutral, expressionless face, and not when people are smiling or showing emotions.

Their conclusion is that emotions mask lifelong habits of expression that become etched on a person’s face even by their late teens or early adulthood, such as frequent happiness, which is stereotypically associated with being wealthy and satisfied.

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When the researchers showed the undergrads photos of people looking visibly happy, they could not discern socioeconomic status any better than chance. The expressions needed to be neutral for the subtle cues to have an effect. Rule gave these reasons for it:

“Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences.Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

Lastly, to show how these kinds of first impressions could come into play in the real world, the duo asked the undergrads to decide who in the photos would be most likely to land a job as an accountant. Results were amazing. As people used facial impressions in biased ways – judging the rich faces as ones to hire for jobs rather than the poor ones. Most of the people went with people from the upper class, showing how these kinds of snap judgments can create and reinforce biases.

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The duo concluded the findings of their study by stating that:

“Face-based perceptions of social class may have important downstream consequences. People talk about the cycle of poverty and this is potentially one contributor to that.”

This intriguing research has two significant takeaways for professionals.

First one is that you simply can’t fake it forever.

The second one is that your biases about money can keep poverty cycles going.

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