Home > Memory > Let’s Face It: Effects of Social Status in Facial Processing

Let’s Face It: Effects of Social Status in Facial Processing

Every day, we constantly recognize and process countless faces; faces of our friends, classmates, strangers, professors, etc. Of the innumerable number of faces we see a day, what dictates what makes some faces more memorable than others? New research suggests that our personal motives, and goals at a given time, have a profound effect on face perception and memory. In the article The Allure of Status: High-Status Targets Are Privileged in Face Processing and Memory, the authors examine the effects of social status on facial recognition and perception.

Evidence suggests that our particular motives influence how we perceive faces: for example, men at a bar are more likely to notice attractive women at first in order to fulfill their goals associated with finding a mate. People also tend to selectively align themselves with who they perceive to be powerful and dominant individuals; this can explain why many women might be drawn more to a guy who is dressed well, or who is driving a nice car, since those are “status” symbols, representing the opportunity of a better life. The goal of the experiment was to see if higher-status faces could be recognized more frequently than lower-status faces, and how social status influences holistic processing (how we view faces as a whole rather than by individual features) and feature integration (how we create a unified representation by combining features).

First, experimenters tested the participants ability to solely recognize faces, by presenting them with a series of faces labeled with high status occupations–such as doctor or CEO–and occupations associated with lower-status–such as plumber or mechanic. Ultimately, the higher-status faces were identified more accurately and frequently than the lower status faces. Experimenters expanded on this by testing whether participants could recognize high-status faces when they weren’t given a job title, but instead personality traits linked to elite or lower status. Faces on red cards had personalities associated with higher-paying jobs, and those on green cards had personalities associated with lower-paying jobs. Again, the higher-status individuals were recognized more often than the lower-status individuals. This, again, relates to how many people are attracted to wealth and status. For example, ever wonder how Donald Trump is consistently seen with beautiful younger women? Well, part of it can definitely be attributed to the fact they may be attracted to his social status, and the fact he is a powerful individual.

In the final two sessions, experimenters tested if participants could remember the location of high and low-status faces, and how feature integration and holistic processing affects recognizing them. After being briefly exposed to the location of a series of faces paired with clothing associated with either high or low social status, participants played a matching game. The goal was to match them as quickly and accurately as possible, and ultimately, results showed that participants were more likely to remember where a face paired with higher-status clothing was, rather than someone with lower-status clothes; this was a significant finding because not only did participants have to recognize the faces, but they also had to remember their location.

To test the effects of feature integration and holistic processing, faces were laterally split at the nose into top and bottom halves, with a small space separating them, as seen in the figure below. The misalignment of the faces had a stronger effect (made the performance worse) in identifying the high-status faces than the low-status ones. This suggests that we process high-status faces holistically, with the use of feature integration, and that recognizing high-status faces requires more holistic processing than low-status faces.

Ultimately, social-status affects attention, memory, and feature integration. Holistic processing is elicited more when recognizing high-status targets than low-status ones, and through the experiments, it’s indicated we can partially control these processes (like how participants remember the location of high-status faces). All of this evidence supports the premise that particular motives can influence attention, processing, and memory, but this also has implications, such as eyewitness testimony. Face memory and relating an identity to a specific location are significant parts of eyewitness testimony, so it’s troublesome that our legal system places so much weight on this when evidence suggests that people believed to be of a lower social status are much more subject to errors in recognition.



Ratcliff, N. J. (2011, Jun 22). The Allure of Status: High-Status Targets Are Privileged in Face Processing and Memory. 1003-1013.



  1. December 3rd, 2013 at 21:34 | #1

    The results of this study, although a bit sad, make sense- it seems natural for people to want to align themselves with those who can help them in some way and we have learned in class that relevance of information is crucial to what is remembered. The first experiment focused on white men. I was interested in the makeup of participants in terms of things like age, gender, and socioeconomic status, because I feel like these things would definitely matter here. For example, if someone is of high social status themselves, they may have more expertise with recognizing high-status targets because their job might depend on it.
    Another post discussed how facial recognition is influenced by sexual orientation, with heterosexual males recognizing female faces better. It would be interesting to explore whether sexual orientation moderates this effect as well, especially in the finding of improved memory for the faces of attractive females.
    In the second experiment, I wonder whether color had any influence. Red is often associated with power, and presenting the faces against a red background may have influenced encoding. Did they try to switch the colors around at all?

  2. March 18th, 2014 at 23:00 | #2

    This article is very interesting as it is in accordance with theories presented in a paper by Harrison and Hole about face recognition. The first theory mentioned in this post is the motivation theory for face recognition. In the Harrison and Hole paper, one possible theory for the own-age bias in facial recognition was increased motivation for success in facial recognition can cause better facial recognition. The example given was that college students who were trainee teachers had better facial recognition for young children than typical college students were because they had a reason or need to recognize children.

    One of the other theories in the Harrison and Hole paper was the “in-group/out-group” theory, which is when individuals place others into an in-group or out-group depending on certain characteristics. A possible extension to the experiment where individuals were shown people of high social status could be to see if individuals of a certain social status recognize people more accurately if they are of the same social status. This could potentially demonstrate the “in-group/out-group” theory of facial recognition.

  3. March 20th, 2014 at 13:44 | #3

    I thought this article was really interesting and is something we often see in our day to day lives. People sometimes say in relationships that one person is too pretty/good-looking to be dating the other, like the example you used with Donald Trump, but sometimes it is more than just looks that play a role in the reasons for attraction. In this article, it is the idea of status and power. In Intro to Psych last year we learned about attraction and that in the evolution desire women are attracted to men with resources because they put bigger emphasis on partners financial prospects in order to support their children. While men are more attracted to women with signs of fertility (youth, smooth skin, optimal hip to waist ratio. So I wonder from this experiment if there was a difference between better recognizing the higher status faces between men and women?
    Also in the Harrison and Hole (2009) article we read about face-recognition, one of the explanations for face recognition was about experience and contact with faces which goes along with the theory of feature expertise. These both say that the more experience and contact with faces we have, we develop an expertise at it and then the more we process them holistically, and not as individual features. However, if this experiment was done with people of all social-status participants, I wonder if those of lower status were able to perceive this faces as holistically as those of the higher status participants. This could show that while there maybe own-race and own-age bias, maybe there is not own-status bias.

  4. October 11th, 2015 at 20:26 | #4

    The evidence presented in this study is interesting for many reasons. First of all, the fact that we might process some face more holistically than we process others would make an interesting follow up study that could provide evidence for or against the concept of a special facial recognition procedure. If indeed face recognition is directed by a special module like it has been argued, then one would expect no different between recognizing faces attached to different stories. I do agree that some faces hold more value to us and will be more easily recognized and processed, but the discrepancy should not be observed when all the faces are those of strangers.
    It does make sense that face recognition can be guided by goals and personal intentions. For example, babies start recognizing their care givers’ faces from a very young age and that make sense because these people carry out many of the babies’ survival needs. These same desire to have one’s needs met carry on to adulthood and is evident in these results that people recognize faces of those who can fulfill their needs one way or another. My understanding of this observation come from many different angles. One explanation is that because attention is limited and how we use it is an investment, we invest in things that will benefit us. This is illustrated in the fact that high status faces were processed and recalled better. Another explanation is that faces that don’t benefit us are actively inhibited, making them more difficult to be recognized. Since the approach of this study seems to have been mate-picking-like, natural selection could also provide some insight.

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