With a quick glance, we can pick up details about a stranger without the other person even speaking. For example, we might notice their skin color, their gender, and how old they are. We might even be able to guess their socioeconomic status by what they are wearing and where they are. 

For decades, psychologists have studied how visible cues such as these can lead to gut reactions, and their research shows that seeing a person of another race can sometimes activate negative associations. These negative associations, known as implicit racial bias, arise rapidly, effortlessly, and sometimes without awareness. When we aren’t aware of them, implicit biases can have negative consequences ranging from subtle and unintended racial slights to blatant discrimination.

Because racial minorities are frequently disadvantaged, could it be that implicit racial bias is actually a bias against people who are perceived to be poor? To answer this question, we conducted several experiments in which we examined the degree to which White research participants associated positive and negative words with photographs of the faces of Black and White people whom they thought were of low or high status.

Our results consistently showed that participants more quickly associated high-status people with positive than negative words. Interestingly, this bias in favor of high-status people did not eliminate a separate bias in favor of White people in general. Our White participants were both pro-White and pro-high-status, which showed that the pro-White bias doesn’t exist just because White people assume that White people are higher in status.

Things got even more interesting when we made it easier to identify the status of each face. Here we noticed two interesting things. First, although participants generally showed positive biases toward both high-status faces and White faces in general, their unconscious associations for low-status White people and high-status Black people in particular were not consistently positive or negative. Second, although participants showed an unconscious preference for high status in both White and Black faces, this bias was much weaker for Black faces. Put another way, having high status increased positive associations for White faces more than for Black faces so that participants had the strongest positive associations for high-status White people.

One reason why high-status White people generated such positive associations may have to do with the fact our participants were White. People are more likely to see members of their own race as individuals than to see people of other races as individuals. So, White participants may have picked up on the status of faces from their own race more easily. If so, you might expect to see just what we found—a stronger unconscious preference for high status when viewing White faces.

Taking this a step further, one might expect that Black participants would show a stronger preference for high-status Black faces than high-status White faces. However, this was not the case. Instead, Black people showed an unconscious preference for high status regardless of the race of the face. This was especially true for Black participants of low socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, our Black sample was smaller than our White samples, so our results for Black participants should be considered tentative.

These findings are important because unconscious biases can have negative consequences for people whose identities carry a negative charge. When we are unaware of our biases or have little time and energy to correct them, anti-Black and/or anti-poor biases can result in prejudiced comments and discrimination.

Notably, the public seems less aware of status-related bias than of racial bias. In other research, I’ve found that White people tend to regulate their responses to Black people, sometimes reporting that they like Black people as much if not more than White people. This is less often the case when people report their feelings about low-status and high-status people. This suggests that many people may regard classism as more acceptable than racism. 

Many more questions remain to be answered about unconscious biases involving status. For example, is such bias stronger in places with massive wealth gaps like San Francisco? As inequality continues to grow in the U.S., understanding these biases and how they affect vulnerable populations will become increasingly important.

For Further Reading

Brown-Iannuzzi, J. L., Cooley, E., McKee, S. E., & Hyden, C. (2019). Wealthy Whites and poor Blacks: Implicit associations between racial groups and wealth predict explicit opposition toward helping the poor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 82, 26–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.11.006

Mattan, B. D., Kubota, J. T., Li, T., Venezia, S. A., & Cloutier, J. (2019). Implicit evaluative biases toward targets varying in race and socioeconomic status. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1512–1527. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219835230

Mattan, B. D., Wei, K. Y., Cloutier, J., & Kubota, J. T. (2018). The social neuroscience of race-based and status-based prejudice. Current Opinion in Psychology, 24, 27–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.04.010

Moore-Berg, S. L., & Karpinski, A. (2019). An intersectional approach to understanding how race and social class affect intergroup processes. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(1), e12426. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12426

Bradley Mattan is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania studying how social hierarchy shapes social perceptions and health disparities. He completed his Ph.D. in 2016 at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.