If Mark Twain was right, and clothes really do make the man, do they also make his race? According to new research from UCI sociologist Andrew Penner, it would appear so. 

In a study published online Sept. 26 in PLoS ONE, Penner and co-authors report that a person - male or female - clothed in business attire is more likely to be seen as White whereas that same person, dressed as a janitor, is more likely to be perceived as Black. This pattern grew more pronounced as faces became more racially ambiguous. 

Findings are based on participants’ racial categorizations of digitally-rendered photos of people wearing either business suits or janitorial uniforms. Using a new computer hand-tracking technique, the researchers were able to record mouse movement as well as actual responses, revealing that even in instances when a person dressed as a janitor was ultimately classified as White, mouse movement gravitated more toward a Black categorization. The opposite was true of an image of the same person dressed in a suit; participant mouse movement veered toward White before a categorization of Black was eventually chosen.  

Video demonstration:


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“This research helps us understand fundamental questions about how people use status cues to make decisions about the race of those around them,” says Penner. “We knew in the abstract that social status affected how people were racially classified, but here we show concretely how status cues are transmitted, which is important for understanding the role that stereotypes play in issues like discrimination.”

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, was co-authored with Jonathan B. Freeman, psychology graduate student, and Matthias Scheutz, computer science associate professor, Tufts University; and Nalini Ambady, psychology professor, and Aliya Saperstein, sociology assistant professor, Stanford University.


Official Press Release (Sept. 26, 2011), courtesy of Kim Thurler, Tufts University

-Heather Wuebker, Social Sciences Communications
-video courtesy of Jonathan B. Freeman, Tufts University

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