Strangers Can Detect Social Class in Just Seven Words

New research shows that a person’s social class is communicated in very brief interactions and maybe even in a few words. Combined with prior research, these findings support the idea that brief, everyday experiences can reinforce and even create class boundaries and inequality.

Researchers from Yale University and the University of California-San Francisco published their findings in the May issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. The data from these studies showed that participants were able to guess the approximate income level of another person using one of three cues: a 60-second video of their behavior, 20 photos from their Facebook profile, or recordings of them speaking seven standard, isolated words.

“We thought, ‘what would be crazy? How little information is enough to give us some information about class?’” says Michael Kraus, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale University School of Management and first author on the article.

In all three tests, participants could identify income levels at rates better than chance, and those who listened to the recordings of seven spoken words had the most accurate guesses. After initial testing, Kraus recalls thinking, “Actually, this might work. And it might tell us some kind of scary things about hierarchy and how it’s reproduced in informal interactions.”

Social inequality has wide-ranging effects, well beyond a person’s job and bank account. Research shows that socioeconomic categories can restrict individuals’ choices across many domains, including health and nutrition, education, housing, and lending. Higher inequality, whether country-wide or within a neighborhood, has been linked to poor well-being and social conflict.

“If we really want to accurately convey how we make decisions in society, how we make decisions about mobility, how we make decisions about hiring people, we need to acknowledge that these biases leak in and how easily they do so,” says Kraus.

Previous studies have established that social signals are everywhere, and people pay attention to them whether they realize it or not. Everyday social cues serve as reminders of barriers and activate class comparisons. The authors put forth that they can also create stratification by eliciting beliefs and behaviors that strengthen class boundaries and broaden the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ The fact that these social cues are so prevalent in everyday life and seem to be easily recognized may help to perpetuate the class-related stereotypes and attitudes that people hold, including dehumanizing those in higher social classes and rationalizing unfairness toward those in lower classes.

“I think that inequalities of sharing of resources is probably the fundamental challenge that our society faces,” says Kraus of his motivations for doing this research. “Understanding more about how inequality operates and how it reproduces itself can help us make a more meaningful pitch to policymakers, to philanthropists, to social change agents about how important these issues are.”


Kraus, M. W., Park, J. W., & Tan, J. J. X. (2017). Signs of social class: The experience of economic inequality in everyday life. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 422–435. doi:10.1177/1745691616673192


so, what are the seven words? the title of the piece lures us with the possibility of information, and then does not deliver.


stupid – it says ‘the first seven words you say’

but then the seven words turn out to be special words that would never be ‘first’

This article is incomplete, weak and pointless. How did I do?

I think that one of these 7 words have to be included in your first seven words of speech. In my opinion, it is very general and depends on the situation.

It is understandable how these seven words could be used to determine social standing or class when spoken with an American accent. Totally useless for an English accent.
Try butter, scones, Milngarvie, Stroud, up, ‘dinner time’ and St John for English, the reasons which will totally confuse US readers


If you have any background in neuro-linguisitc programming, you know that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, just like you mother said when you were young. She wasn’t correcting what you said but teaching you to be aware of how it is heard.

If you are interviewing for a job, meeting someone for the first time like a blind date, or perhaps even interacting with a law enforcement officer, you should know what they are listening for. You only have one shot at making a good first impression.

Or put it another way – the only person who won’t care what you sound like when first meeting you is the undertaker.

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