Does clothing indicate only socioeconomic status and physical attraction? Can one signal dominance and effectiveness with clothing? Well, of course it does.

Clothing is dependent on one’s conscious choices to project his desired personal image. It outlines the blueprint of a person. It is not transient as a gesture, sarcastic comment, and facial expression. Of course, it is demonstrated alongside these brief cues. In social situations, a clothing outfit comes with the body that wears it, with the person’s gesture and posture, his face, emotional expressions, and eyes behavior.

Moreover, the potential of clothes to convey a message is context dependant. In order to be an indicator of someone’s social resources, dress has to be socially appropriate for the time and situation. The interpretation is affected by the social context and by the former knowledge of the symbolism attached to the expressive elements of the clothes such as forms, colors, textures, and postures.

And still, in an overall approach, the way someone dresses correlates with his self-assessment, and it influences the impression of others towards him. For instance, formal clothing causes a more meaningful perception of the person’s actions and trustworthiness, how tight his shirt is associates with his attractiveness, and so on.

Where a person feels himself having the upper hand in an approaching conflict, he will wear some clothing items that are related in some way to the internal state of superiority. A submissive person confronting him sees his clothing items and infers about the internal state of him being the dominant one.

Let’s talk about cosmetics and body modifications as social signals. We all feel that body decoration is an everyday pursuit. Naturally, from a very young age, we are bound to the biased assumption of “what is beautiful is good”. We tend to associate positive features in one’s character with an attractive appearance. But actually, adornment is an auxiliary for signaling status. This bias is a great indicator of one’s social competence, even in a more efficient way than to the perception of one’s cognitive abilities.

And indeed, the cosmetics industry is selling with immense profits each year. In the US alone it generates millions of dollars. Tattoos and piercings are popular too, mostly with youngsters, more than 30% of college students in the US in 2001. People use grooming, make-up, tattooing and piercing to modify their appearance and try to create a comparative advantage over others. Using these adornments makes one feel more attractive, vibrant, and self-confident. Tattooed and pierced people are seen as liberal independent and adventurous characters.

However, taking foppishness to the extreme is in fact an absurd sight. A covert cue that is swept away to being overtly displayed, loses its power and ridicules that individual. It may be presenting a person’s character as gross, aggressive, or untrusty.

As cosmetics and body modifications are moderately handled, these fine beautifications are a form of self-marketing to communicate one’s identity and status, and in turn, affect competence in a given situation. Putting it in other words, spending on beauty items and body modifications generate payoffs.

Researchers have found that every person has a unique smell, similar to a fingerprint or “voice print.” These smell prints are called olfactory signatures, and are influenced by genetic factors, body odors and secretions. Just like through a fingerprint, a person can be identified by their olfactory signature. Multiple studies have shown that babies and small children can identify the smell of their mothers – and vice versa. In fact, some researchers suggest that olfactory communication is developed well before visual and auditory communication.

In adults, pheromones are chemical messengers emitted into the environment from the body (from glands located in armpits and genitals) to activate psychological or behavioral responses from others. Pheromones also act to attract and repel others. Research in this area involved men wearing masks while rating descriptions of female job candidates. Some masks were odorless and others were sprayed with androstenol, the scent produced by fresh male sweat. Men rated women more favorably when wearing the odorless mask.

Using scent to our advantage: less is more?

Perfume has been marketed for decades as a gateway to success. Most advertising campaigns for perfumes and colognes share the same narrative of using the scent as a way to become attractive towards people from the opposite sex. However, to what extent is this the case? On the one hand, different people prefer different scents. On the other hand, wearing perfume (or too much of it) could work against the wearer. 

Research by Aune and Aune in 2008 suggests that too much perfume, like too much makeup, is actually a turn off. In a study, people were interviewed by women that either wore no perfume, light perfume (1 spray), moderate perfume (2-3 sprays) or too much perfume (5-6 sprays). Men rated women interviewers most physically attractive when they were wearing light perfume. What’s more, women interviewers found men most attractive when they were wearing no perfume. In other words, an excessive perfume condition didn’t benefit anyone.

Smell and AI: creating a digital nose

Our sense of smell works through our noses, which process odor molecules released by objects around us. When energy in objects increases (through pressure, agitation, or temperature changes), odors evaporate, making it possible for us to inhale them. Aryballe, a startup that uses artificial intelligence and digital olfaction technology to mimic the human sense of smell, helps their business customers turn odor data into actionable information. Digital olfaction mimics the way humans smell by capturing odor signatures using biosensors, then using software solutions to analyze and display the odor data. Artificial Intelligence (AI) interprets the signatures and classifies them based on a database of previously collected smells.

If we could analyze and classify scent at such a scale and analyze it through machine learning – could we create the perfect scent for any occasion? The right room spray to help us during a negotiation process? A perfume that could help us get a promotion or close a deal?

Scent marketing: a profitable way to communicate 

Scent marketing is an established discipline.  If you have ever entered a Zara Home store, you would smell the same scent of jasmine, in each store all around the world. Beyond retail, scent marketing is used as an effective way to communicate in sectors like banking, hotels, consumer products, and automobiles. Ford worked with a specialized sensory company and a perfumer to develop a unique scent for their brand Lincoln, which they hoped would heighten the feeling of luxury and prestige.

On the one hand, scents are memorable so marketers use olfactory cues as a way to make their brand memorable. On the other hand, certain smells can boost sales. According to research done by Washington State University, the simple smell of orange has helped shoppers to spend 20% more in a home store in St.Gallen.

If we treat ourselves as a “brand”, what would be our signature scent? Is it making us memorable and likeable in the eyes of others? Is it serving our purpose in life and/or business? Or is it time to look for a new scent?

Imagine you’re a fly on the wall in a meeting room where a big deal is going to be sealed. You’re watching both sides, the seller and the prospect, negotiating the terms and conditions of the deal, and you’re trying to predict the outcome. You sense that both the seller and the prospect use certain verbal strategies to influence the perceptions of the other delegate with regards to their own social status and position. It appears that they are doing so by controlling to which extent they are not “adhering to the rules”.

Which rules are these, and how do the participants know when someone made such a verbal strategic move to infer a social repositioning? How do people know to look for an implied social meaning in someone’s utterance and no to take utterances literally?

A person who claims dominance over another person is likely to perform less adhering behavior to a few conversational conventions. It turns out that mainly on fresh acquaintances, where participants are negotiating their social power, speakers are mostly violating these conventions. The more dominant you are, the more “freedom” you have to deviate from conversational conventions, and transgress the rules, leaving the impression your superiority does not need ratification. So what are these conventions exactly?

The four Maxims

According to Paul Grice (1967) we all assume that the other interlocutors are aware of and being cooperative with few conversational conventions. These are called the Four Maxims: (a) saying enough but not too much (quantity), (b) being truthful (quality), (c) being relevant to the context (relevance), and finally, (d) being clear and orderly (manner). However, as I already mentioned, these Four Maxims are rarely adhered to in real-life interactions, and in fact, the intensity and trend of their violations help the participants process “true meaning”, i.e. meaning within a social context. In other words, whenever a violation of these maxims occurs, that’s a cue to search for the intended meaning which aims to reflect the new consequences on the social status map.

So back to the meeting room

You inspect the scene and trying to account for the following course of events:

C asks about presenting both sides’ current offer.
A: “It is not to be submitted yet.”
B: “It is in progress, and subject to delay due to the holidays. I deeply apologize, it should be submitted by the end of this day.”

C, the mediator, is asking both sides about documentation submission. It is clear from A and B’s responses they are socially differently placed. While B responds at length, offers rich information about her deadline, A allows herself to be laconic and under-informative, not even adding any new knowledge to the discourse. The quantity maxim is in inverse proportion with the dominance axis. In this discourse A is more competent and therefore allows herself to laconically express, while B’s inferiority leads to elaborated extended speech.

B: “It is going to be very hard for me to accept this condition”
A: “I don’t see what condition you are willing to accept”

B demonstrates difficulty to converge on one of the deal conditions. A, in return, comments that she didn’t meet any condition that B is comfortable with, which is probably not the case. There must be few conditions which both sides agreed upon. A appears to assert an untruthful claim, impairing the quality of her utterance. By doing so, she implies her dissatisfaction with B’s statement and ratifies her superiority over B. While an inferior speaker will doubtfully violate the truthful quality of her speech, a dominant speaker is very likely to fault it without concern for the consequences.

B: “Is it ok if we reschedule the beta for when our platform gets stable?”
A: “I have a hard stop. Talk to Cindy.”
B: “Of course, I understand that, I’ll touch base with her tomorrow morning.”

B is trying to tackle a topic while A discards B’s topic entirely. She is ignoring it and bringing up a different issue instead. B consents immediately to A’s new borders of relevance. A now has the upper hand by changing the discourse.

B: “What did you feel about the proposal I sent over to you?”
A: “What do you think?”

A does not account literally for B’s question. Instead she shifts it back at her, leaving her with an obscure response and with no concrete answer. Although B doesn’t get clear details to her point of interest, she does get a notion for A’s social positioning over her.

Dominance and adherent behavior

To sum up, Interactants are continuously negotiating their social status. One of their ways of doing so is by maintaining or leveling up their phase lines, according to how coherent they are with the conversational rules. The more dominant a person is, the less she is bound to adherent behavior, as her status enables her the freedom to stray from the four maxims.

Physical appearance plays a big role in how we are perceived. On the one hand, there’s the appearance of our body which includes things that are hard to change like our height or facial features and others such as our haircut or the way we are groomed which can be easily controlled and adjusted to make an impression. In addition, there are the adornments which add an additional layer of nonverbal communication. Think of how clothes, jewellery, accessories, and even our scent create an impact on how people perceive us.

There has been extensive research on this subject which unanimously shows how physical appearance and attractiveness are key in the workplace. There are studies showing that are more likely to get hired if you look well-groomed, that good-looking people make about 12% more money than less appealing folks, and that attractive real-estate brokers bring in more money than their less attractive peers. 

Physical appearance plays a big role in how we are perceived.

The “Beauty Premium”

An academic paper published at Harvard, titled “Why Beauty Matters” decomposed the beauty premium in an experimental labor market.The study found a sizable beauty premium which manifested in three main ways. Firstly, physically attractive workers were more confident and as a result they received increased wages. Secondly, for a given level of confidence, physically attractive workers were (wrongly) considered more able by employers. Thirdly, physically attractive workers had oral skills (such as communication and social skills) which raised their wages when they interacted with employers. 

In fact, some research has focused on figuring out the specific ROI on beauty.  Professor Daniel Hamermesh, a University of Texas psychologist who studies beauty in the workplace, found that a person with above-average looks earning $20 an hour over a 40-year career would earn $1.69 million, while a person with below-average looks would pull in $1.46 million. 

Maybe she’s born with it… 

When comparing women who wore makeup versus what they look like bare-faced, participants in a 2011 Harvard study viewed the groomed woman as more attractive, competent, likeable, and trustworthy. “When inferring trustworthiness, likeability, or competence from an image, we are influenced significantly not only by the attractiveness of the inherited phenotype but by the effects of the ‘extended phenotype,’ in this case, makeup,” the paper states.

Whether it’s a matter of vanity, preference, or business impact, technology solutions aren’t staying behind and have started offering a range of filters to enhance our appearance. Besides the fun or wacky instagram or snapchat filters, there are solutions like Zoom’s secret beauty filter which subtly improves appearance during video calls. The company describes it as “a softening effect to skin to minimize the visibility of imperfections. 

Machine Analysis of Beauty & Attractiveness

It can be incredibly hard for machine learning to recognize and measure attractiveness. The book ‘Social Signal Processing’ explores the opportunities and challenges around automatic analysis of aesthetics. While there are some theories that suggest facial symmetry and skin texture play a key role in identifying human attractiveness – the space is still in its infancy when it comes to research. However, the book suggests there is a growing body of research on automatic analysis on human attractiveness and likeability from human physical cues (facial cues, body cues, vocal cues, etc). The increased growth in interest might be linked to the recent emphasis on idealized physical looks and soaring demand for aesthetic surgery, as well as other application areas such as computer assisted search of partners in online dating services.

While going under the knife of doing radical body changes is not something most people would do, adjusting appearance, grooming, and style is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. The impact that these social cues are able to achieve without saying a word is huge. In addition, it is something that can’t be escaped so we need to pay close attention to them – as they will send a message whether we like it or not.

The desire to project a competent image is perhaps as basic as the need for food and shelter

Let’s talk about adornment. Since the dawn of civilization, people have been adorning themselves in a multitude of ways to promote a more competent image of themselves (in the eyes of their peers).

This behavior is so basic and inherent that even people who typically shy away from cosmetics and accessories are likely to find themselves engaging in primping behaviors (tie straightening, swift hair brushing, etc) right before an important meeting or a high stake situation with social implications.

Compared to physical features (facial structure, body type, height, symmetry) adornment cues are more dynamic and easily changeable. Still, their impact on how we perceive each other is enormous.

At SubStrata we’re building the infrastructure that allows the deep automatic analysis of human aesthetics with regards to peer-perception, impression management and role recognition in human to human interactions.