Article of the Day: Social Attitudes to Faces

Your class determines how you look at your fellow creatures

IN 2009 a team of psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, who were studying people from different walks of life, noticed that those from the upper classes were less good than those from the lower at discerning emotions on the faces of others. This led them to speculate that such empathy weakens as you go up the social scale. The theory might be true. But a paper just published in Psychological Science, by Pia Dietze and Eric Knowles of New York University, offers an alternative hypothesis—that it is not the emotional sensitivity of patricians to plebs which is impaired, but their attention to them.

Dr Dietze and Dr Knowles began their study with an experiment that they told participants was a study of Google Glasses. They were, though, lying. The test was not of these pieces of apparatus (tiny video cameras hidden in pairs of spectacles, which let wearers take surreptitious footage of whatever they are looking at), but rather of the participants’ behaviour. The 61 volunteers were all asked to wear a Google Glass headset, walk for a block in New York and focus their attention on whatever captured their interest. Their souped-up specs then recorded everything they looked at. Afterwards, they filled out a questionnaire that asked, along with matters of age, sex and ethnicity, about their income, their level of education and the social class they believed they belonged to.

This done, the researchers handed the videos over to six “coders”—people trained to parse video recordings for teams of psychologists without knowing the purpose of an experiment. The coders were asked to identify participants’ glances at other people, and also to record the duration of each gaze.

…they found that the number of gazes at strangers did not vary with social class, but their duration did.

When Dr Dietze and Dr Knowles correlated the coders’ conclusions with the data from the questionnaires, they found that the number of gazes at strangers did not vary with social class, but their duration did. Specifically, upper-middle-class and upper-class people gazed at the faces of others for a fifth of a second less than members of lower social classes.

To explore further, the two researchers set up a second experiment. In this they asked 82 volunteers to place their heads on chin rests and have their eyes monitored as they were shown a variety of street scenes from New York, San Francisco and London. This time, working-class people spent a tenth of a second longer looking at faces than did upper-middle-class people—a difference that did not apply when the same people looked at inanimate objects.


Pia Dietze and Eric Knowles

Dr Dietze and Dr Knowles then ran one more experiment. This was a version of Kim’s game, in which they presented 397 participants with an array of six randomly arranged images (one of a face and five of inanimate objects such as fruits, houseplants or musical instruments) that alternated with a second array which either had identical images to the first, but differently arranged, or had one of those images changed (and was also differently arranged). Participants had to work out which image, if any, had been substituted.

Once again, there was no difference between classes’ success in doing this when the altered image was of an object. When it was of a face, though, lower-class people did better than upper-class ones.

It seems, then, that those from the lower classes really do take more notice of faces than those who inhabit the top of the heap. Why, is open to speculation. Dr Dietze’s and Dr Knowles’s own view is that the upper classes pay less attention because they believe random strangers have little to offer. Perhaps one way to test that hypothesis would be to rerun their experiment at a Buckingham Palace garden party.

This article first appeared in The Economist on 15 October 2016

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