Does Class Bias Emerge the Minute We Open our Mouths

It’s often said that we can make an assessment of someone within the first few seconds of meeting them, but a recent study from Yale highlights just how pernicious these snap judgments can be, even in scenarios where more considered assessments are more rational.

The study examined job interview scenarios and found that someone’s class and socioeconomic status can be discerned within the first few seconds of them opening their mouth.  What’s more, the study shows that these snap judgments then impact the candidates that hiring managers prefer, with those from higher social classes picked more frequently than their working class peers.

Our study shows that even during the briefest interactions, a person’s speech patterns shape the way people perceive them, including assessing their competence and fitness for a job,” the researchers explain. “While most hiring managers would deny that a job candidate’s social class matters, in reality, the socioeconomic position of an applicant or their parents is being assessed within the first seconds they speak — a circumstance that limits economic mobility and perpetuates inequality.”

A distorted view

The researchers conducted several experiments to arrive at their conclusion, with the majority aiming to explore how quick people can be in accurately detecting one’s social class from a few seconds of speech.  These experiments revealed that the recital of just seven random words is usually all it takes to accurately gauge the speaker’s social class.

These insights can derive from both subjective standards for English as well as the digital standards espoused by new products such as Alexa.  Indeed, these pronunciation cues proved a more effective marker of one’s social class than the contents of their speech.

The power of these snap judgments was emphasized in an experiment whereby people were replaced in a recruitment scenario.  Twenty job candidates were presented from a variety of current and childhood socioeconomic backgrounds, with the candidates interviewing for an entry-level lab manager position at Yale.  Each candidate was asked to record a conversation before the interview in which they were asked to briefly describe themselves.

These recordings were then played to a few hundred volunteers, all of which had hiring experience.  Half of the volunteers listened to the description, with the other half simply reading the transcript.  They were then asked to assess their professional qualities and determine what their starting salary, signing bonus should be.  They were also asked what social class they thought they were.  At this stage, they had only got the brief audio description to go on, with no further professional background for the candidates provided.

The results revealed that those people who listened to the audio recordings were more likely to accurately assess the socioeconomic status of the candidate, and that this was then used to infer the qualifications of that person and their suitability for the role.  Suffice to say, this was due to the absence of any other information to do this, but nonetheless, the researchers believe the fact that those from higher class backgrounds were given better jobs and higher salaries is important.

We rarely talk explicitly about social class, and yet, people with hiring experience infer competence and fitness based on socioeconomic position estimated from a few second of an applicant’s speech,” the researchers conclude. “If we want to move to a more equitable society, then we must contend with these ingrained psychological processes that drive our early impressions of others. Despite what these hiring tendencies may suggest, talent is not found solely among those born to rich or well-educated families. Policies that actively recruit candidates from all levels of status in society are best positioned to match opportunities to the people best suited for them.”

Editor’s Note – This article is republished with permission of the author with first publication on his site The Horizon Tracker.

Posted in: Civil Liberties, Education, Employment Law, KM, Management, Recruiting