Study: Rich people really think they’re different from the rest of us


File THIS ONE under “Social Darwinism”:

In several experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley explored what they call social class essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that surface differences between two groups of people or things can be explained by differences in fundamental identities. One sees categories as natural, discrete, and stable. Dogs have a certain dogness to them and cats a certain catness.

Researchers have found that people hold essentialist beliefs about generally biological categories such as gender, race, and sexuality, as well as about more cultural ones such as nationality, religion, and political orientation. Essentialism leads to stereotyping, prejudice, and a disinclination to mingle with outsiders. Kraus and Keltner wanted to know if we see social class as an essential category.

They started by developing a scale for measuring essentialistic beliefs about class. A diverse group of American adults rated their endorsement of such statements as “I think even if everyone wore the same clothing, people would still be able to tell your social class,” and “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining their genes.” On average, people rated the items a 3.43, where 1 means completely disagree and 7 means completely agree.

If you’re doing well, you believe success comes to those who deserve it, and those of lower status must not deserve it.

Participants also gave a subjective rating, from 1 to 10, of their own social class rank within their community, based on education, income, and occupational status. The researchers found that higher social class was associated with greater social class essentialism. This pattern remained even after controlling for political orientation as well as objective measures of a participant’s income and education level, indicating that it’s one’s sense of being above or below others, not one’s actual resources, that drives the result.

Kraus and Keltner looked deeper into the connection between social class and social class essentialism by testing participants’ belief in a just world, asking them to evaluate such statements as “I feel that people get what they are entitled to have.” The psychologist Melvin Lerner developed just world theory in the 1960s, arguing that we’re motivated to believe that the world is a fair place. The alternative—a universe where bad things happen to good people—is too upsetting. So we engage defense mechanisms such as blaming the victim—“She shouldn’t have dressed that way”—or trusting that positive and negative events will be balanced out by karma, a form of magical thinking.

Kraus and Keltner found that the higher people perceived their social class to be, the more strongly they endorsed just-world beliefs, and that this difference explained their increased social class essentialism: Apparently if you feel that you’re doing well, you want to believe success comes to those who deserve it, and therefore those of lower status must not deserve it. (Incidentally, the argument that you “deserve” anything because of your genes is philosophically contentious; none of us did anything to earn our genes.)

Higher-class Americans may well believe life is fair because they’re motivated to defend their egos and lifestyle, but there’s an additional twist to their greater belief in a just world. Numerous researchers have found that upper-class people are more likely to explain other people’s behavior by appealing to internal traits and abilities, whereas lower-class individuals note circumstances and environmental forces. This matches reality in many ways for these respective groups. The rich do generally have the freedom to pursue their desires and strengths, while for the poor, external limitations often outnumber their opportunities. The poor realize they could have the best genes in the world and still end up working at McDonald’s. The wealthy might not merely be turning a blind eye to such realities; due to their personal experience, they might actually have a blind spot.

There is a grain of truth to social class essentialism; the few studies on the subject estimate that income, educational attainment, and occupational status are perhaps at least 10 percent genetic (and maybe much more). It makes sense that talent and drive, some portion of which are related to genetic variation, contribute to success. But that’s a far cry from saying “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining his or her genes.” Such a statement ignores the role of wealth inheritance, the social connections one shares with one’s parents, or the educational opportunities family money can buy—not to mention strokes of good or bad luck (that are not tied to karma).

One repercussion of social class essentialism is a lack of forgiveness for criminals and cheaters. In one of Kraus and Keltner’s experiments, subjects read one of two fake scientific articles: One reported that we genetically inherit our work ethic, intelligence, and ultimately our socioeconomic status; the other held that socioeconomic status has no genetic basis. Then the participants read scenarios about someone cheating on an academic exam and rated how much they endorsed various punishments, including “restorative” ones such as community service and ethics training. Those who read the essay supporting essentialism showed more resistance to restorative punishments. “When people cheat the academic system they unfairly ascend the social class hierarchy,” Kraus says. Some of us might attribute a cheater’s seeming subpar intelligence or preparation or integrity to upbringing and see room for improvement. An essentialist will see bad genes. And if you think people can’t change, then there’s no use in trying to help them.

Kraus and Keltner think social class essentialism (and the historically even more harmful race essentialism) might push our justice system toward giving certain people long prison sentences instead of chances at rehabilitation. Spreading the notion that social categories are constructed could counteract the belief that lower-class people’s behavior is genetically determined, and it could also lead to greater support for drug treatment programs, affirmative action, Head Start, an increased minimum wage, and multiple other causes benefiting the less affluent.

Social class essentialism is basically inciting social Darwinism. This distortion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, in one interpretation, is the belief that only the fit survive and thrive—and, further, that this process should be accepted or even accelerated by public policy. It’s an example of the logical fallacy known as the “appeal to nature”—what is natural is good. (If that were true, technology and medicine would be moral abominations.) Social class essentialism entails belief in economic survival of the fittest as a fact. It might also entail belief in survival of the fittest as a desired end, given the results linking it to reduced support for restorative interventions. It’s one thing to say, “Those people can’t change, so let’s not waste our time.” It’s another to say, “Those people can’t change, so let’s lock them away.” Or eradicate them: Only four years ago, then-Lt. Gov. of South Carolina Andre Bauer told a town hall meeting that poor people, like “stray animals,” should not be fed, “because they breed.”



  1. Brings to mind the Eddie Murphy movie “Trading Places”

  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/your-money/17wealth.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    The vehemence in these e-mail messages made me wonder why so many people were furious at those who had more than they did. And why are the rich shouldering the blame for a collective run of bad decision-making? After all, many of the rich got there through hard work. And plenty of not-so-rich people bought homes, cars and electronics they could not afford and then defaulted on the debt, contributing to the crash last year.

    But in this recession, anger flows one way. Eric Dammann, a Manhattan psychoanalyst, theorizes that a lot of people are angry that the rules of the game seem to have changed.

    “There’s always been envy and hatred toward the rich, but there was also a strong undercurrent of admiration that was holding these people up as a goal,” Mr. Dammann said. “This time it’s different because it feels like it’s a closed club and the rich have an unfair advantage.”

    What is troubling is that the anger has hardened for some into a suspicion that all wealthy people are motivated purely by self-interest, said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist in Hawaii and a co-author of the forthcoming book, “Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health” (Random House).

    “The script goes like this: Money is bad, rich people are shallow and greedy, and people become rich by taking advantage of others,” Mr. Klontz said. “But the same people who say money is bad say money is connected to their self-worth — they wished they had it and you didn’t.”

    In boom or bust, envy is natural, and the desire for a level playing field is understandable. But so too is the desire to do better financially, to the point where it seems at times to be hardwired into our national psyche. “To revile the rich is to revile the American dream,” said Robert Clarfeld, president of the wealth management firm Clarfeld Financial Advisors.

    This resentment was so palpable, I started to wonder if it was having any effect — were the wealthy aware of it, and if they were, did they care?

  3. Shawn Robinson

    For someone who can come up with quick apologetics that are OK, you should know, Expdoc, that one of the major sources of contempt for wealth and riches comes from the words of Jesus in the Bible. I think the only reference in the Bible that shows someone roasting in hell is the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
    Now, I don’t believe rich people should go to hell, but that’s where it comes from.
    Also contempt for wealth comes from the idea that the people controlling the money have leveraged their money through overcharging, underpaying or merely inherited the wealth and really didn’t work for it at all — since most people who actually work do not get rich. If you have heard rich people complain about each other you will know they believe some of these things about others.
    I am not against wealth building and in fact, it is a skill that should be taught — but the source of the sentiment isn’t purely envy on the part of people who have poor behavior.

  4. http://christianity.about.com/od/whatdoesthebiblesay/a/bibleandwealth.htm

    Because of the world’s false values, we seldom see ourselves as we really are. The truth is that in the eyes of God, every believer is rich and famous.
    We possess the richness of a salvation that can never be taken from us. This is the treasure that’s immune from moths and rust. We take it with us when we die, unlike money or fancy possessions.

    We are famous and precious to our Savior, so much that he sacrificed himself so we can spend eternity with him. His love surpasses any earthly fame because it will never end.

    It’s time to stop comparing houses, cars, clothes, and bank accounts. It’s time to stop feeling inadequate because we don’t own the outward symbols of success.

    Instead, it’s time to turn our eyes to our intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s where we’ll experience our greatest fulfillment. That’s where we’ll finally find all the riches we’ve ever wanted.

  5. Here is another quick apologetic for you:


    Do you remember that God’s good friend Abraham was wealthy? “Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold,” Genesis 13:2 informs us. Job was the richest man in the land. Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Joseph, David, Solomon — all loaded. Those whom God loved in the Old Testament, He often favored with a level of wealth that would have put Bill Gates in a coma. Solomon was so rich that his entire kingdom was awash in gold. Yes, how about that? — “Trickle-down economics” in the Bible. Silver was so plentiful that it was no longer a precious metal.

    That’s rich.

    That was the backdrop for Jesus’ radical words. Unlike the popular paradigm today, affluence was not assumed to be proof of greed and capitalist oppression; if anything, it was connected to God’s favor. The biological sons of Abraham had observed correctly that those whom God loved, He blessed with stuff. But they had leapt to the faulty conclusion that those blessed with stuff were necessarily the people God loved.

    Now read this familiar passage again, please:

    And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And when the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking upon them Jesus said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” — Matthew 19:23-26 NASB

    Notice the astonishment of the Twelve. If not even a rich man, a man obviously blessed by God, can coast into heaven, what chance does a regular schlub like me have? Jesus responded that a rich man could not be saved by human effort, only by divine intervention.

    Do we think salvation works some other way for poor people?

    If we were to do a comprehensive study on Christ’s relationship with the rich, rather than just scanning the Happy Verse of the Day, we would find more than the account of the rich young man who had deluded himself into thinking he had kept all the commandments. We would read about Zaccheus — a different rich man who received a different prescription from the Lord. We would hear the wailing of the damned miser in the story of “The rich man and Lazarus;” and we would sob beside the comfortable Joseph of Arimathea as he expended his resources to care for the body of the Crucified.

    If riches are no indication of God’s favor, then neither are they evidence of His disfavor.

    In no way do I want to soften the sting of Jesus’ words to all of us when He warns that our possessions may end up possessing us. And make no mistake: by historical standards, and by current world standards, everyone reading this article is “rich.” We must deal with these red letters as if they were addressed to us — but not as if they came from within our culture, or with no context.

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