Negative emotion and perceived social class

R. Thora Bjornsdottir, Nicholas O. Rule

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Downloads (Pure)


People use stereotypes about the benefits of wealth and success to infer that rich people look happier than poor people. For instance, perceivers categorize smiling faces as rich more often than they categorize neutral faces as rich. Moreover, richer people’s neutral faces in fact display more positive affect than poorer people’s neutral faces. Applying these emotion stereotypes thus enables perceivers to accurately classify targets’ social class from their neutral faces. Extant research has left unexplained whether perceivers use broad differences in valence or specific emotions when judging others’ social class, however. We tested this here by examining how four negatively valenced emotions influence perceptions of social class: sadness, anger, disgust, and fear. Whereas sadness and anger relate to both stereotypes and actual correlates of lower social class (e.g., depression and hostility, respectively), no established links suggest that poorer people should express or experience greater disgust or fear. Consistent with stereotypes of lower-class people, targets expressing sadness and anger were categorized as poor or working class more often than neutral targets were. Targets expressing disgust and fear also looked lower class than neutral targets did, however. These combined findings therefore suggest that perceivers rely on valence differences rather than specific emotions to judge social class, indicating that the broad perception of low social class as a negative state (and high social class as a positive state) may drive face-based impressions of social class.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1031-1041
Number of pages11
Issue number6
Early online date13 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Cite this