The Science of Snobbery

A new study shows that body language indicates socioeconomic status

From the US PopSci team

Remember the stereotype about the snotty rich kid? Well, now science may even support this old cliché. Generally, people gauge each other’s wealth in material terms——the kind of car you drive, your house, or the clothes you wear. But, according to psychologists Michael W. Kraus and Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkley, body language also indicates where you stand in the economic pecking order.

Kraus and Keltner videotaped more than 100 college students as they got to know a complete stranger in 5-minute, one-on-one interviews. The researchers looked for “disengagement cues” (doodling or fidgeting) and “engagement cues” (eye contact, laughing, and raised eyebrows). During 60-second clips, Kraus and Keltner noted that students with parents with a higher socioeconomic status (SES) tended to be ruder in conversation, doodling, fidgeting, and periodically grooming themselves for an average of 2 seconds. Students with parents with lower SES—below the state’s median income level—barely fidgeted, and tended to smile, raise their eyebrows, and were generally more engaged and polite in conversation. Furthermore, a separate group of volunteers were shown the 60 second clips, and they were often able to correctly guess the SES background of the students based on body language.

The takeaway? Kraus and Keltner, who published their findings in last month’s issue of Psychology Science, surmised that the rich kids didn’t need to try as hard to be polite, because they were less dependent on others.

“In the animal world, conflict arises when you’re battling for status,” Kraus told LiveScience. “So it’s adaptive for us to avoid those conflicts and tell us we know ‘I’m higher status than you, so don’t bother having a conflict with me’…Lower SES people have fewer resources, and by definition should be more dependent on others.”