The psychology of social class – excerpts

The psychology of social class:
How socioeconomic status impacts thought, feelings, and behavior
by Antony S. R. Manstead

Drawing on recent research on the psychology of social class, I argue that the material conditions in which people grow up and live have a lasting impact on their personal and social identities and that this influences both the way they think and feel about their social environment and key aspects of their social behavior.
Relative to middle‐class counterparts, lower/working‐class individuals are less likely to define themselves in terms of their socioeconomic status and are more likely to have interdependent self‐concepts; they are also more inclined to explain social events in situational terms, as a result of having a lower sense of personal control.

Working‐class people score higher on measures of empathy and are more likely to help others in distress. The widely held view that working‐class individuals are more prejudiced towards immigrants and ethnic minorities is shown to be a function of economic threat, in that highly educated people also express prejudice towards these groups when the latter are described as highly educated and therefore pose an economic threat.

The fact that middle‐class norms of independence prevail in universities and prestigious workplaces make working‐class people less likely to apply for positions in such institutions, less likely to be selected and less likely to stay if selected.

In other words, social class differences in identity, cognition, feelings, and behavior make it less likely that working‐class individuals can benefit from educational and occupational opportunities to improve their material circumstances. This means that redistributive policies are needed to break the cycle of deprivation that limits opportunities and threatens social cohesion.

From the article: “Norton and Ariely (2011) asked a nationally representative sample of more than 5,500 Americans to estimate the (then) current wealth distribution in the United States and also to express their preferences for how wealth should be distributed. The key findings from this research were (1) that respondents greatly underestimated the degree of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest 20% of the population owned 59% of the wealth, where the actual figure is 84% and (2) that their preferred distribution of wealth among citizens was closer to equality than even their own incorrect estimations of the distribution (e.g., they expressed a preference that the top 20% should own 32% of the nation’s wealth).

In a related survey of American adults, 35% believed they were in the top 10% economic bracket.

The ‘system justification hypothesis’, which holds that ‘people who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it’ (Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003, p. 13). Those who have to go through an unpleasant initiation rite in order to join a group or organization become more strongly committed to it.

Overall, these four studies are consistent in showing that, relative to higher‐class people, lower‐class people are more generous, support charity to a greater extent, are more trusting towards a stranger, and more likely to help a person in distress.

Lower‐class participants were more generous in private than in public, whereas the reverse was true for higher‐class participants. Interestingly, higher‐class participants were more likely to expect to feel proud about acting prosocially, and this difference in anticipated pride mediated the effect of social class on the difference between public and private donations.

Relative to lower‐class individuals, higher‐class people were more likely to show unethical decision‐making tendencies, to take valued goods from others, to lie in a negotiation, to cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize and to endorse unethical behavior at work. There was also evidence that these unethical tendencies were partly accounted for by more favorable attitudes towards greed among higher‐class people.

From Robert Altemeyer’s research: “The author considered the small part of the population whose members score highly on both the Social Dominance Orientation scale and the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale. Studies of these High SDO-High RWAs, culled from samples of nearly 4000 Canadian university students and over 2600 of their parents and reported in the present article, reveal that these dominating authoritarians are among the most prejudiced persons in society. Furthermore, they seem to combine the worst elements of each kind of personality, being power-hungry, unsupportive of equality, manipulative, and amoral, as social dominators are in general, while also being religiously ethnocentric and dogmatic, as right-wing authoritarians tend to be. The author suggested that, although they are small in number, such persons can have a considerable impact on society because they are well-positioned to become the leaders of prejudiced right-wing political movements.

Whichever of these explanations is correct – and they may all be to some extent – the fact that prosocial behavior on the part of higher‐class individuals decreases under conditions of high economic inequality is important, given that the United States is one of the most economically unequal societies in the industrialized world. In unequal societies, then, it seems safe to conclude that on average, higher‐class individuals are less likely than their lower‐class counterparts to behave prosocially, especially where the prosocial behavior is not public in nature.

Given the evidence that citizens consistently express a preference for less wealth and income inequality than what currently prevails in many societies, it is worth considering why there is not greater support for redistributive policies. It is known that one factor that weakens support for such policies is a belief in social mobility. American participants have been found to overestimate the degree of social mobility in the United States (Davidai & Gilovich, 2015; Kraus & Tan, 2015), and Shariff, Wiwad, and Aknin (2016) have shown, using a combination of survey and experimental methods, that higher perceived mobility leads to greater acceptance of income inequality.

For example, the United States is more economically unequal than virtually every other industrialized country (Piketty & Saez, 2014). At the same time, the perceived degree of social mobility is greater in the United States than in other countries (Isaacs, 2008) – although the reality is that social mobility is lower in the United States (and indeed in the United Kingdom; see Social Mobility Commission, 2017) than in many other industrialized counties (Isaacs, 2008).
This points to the importance of social comparisons and suggests that those who compare themselves with others who have a lower social standing are less likely to be supportive of redistribution.

Also relevant to the likelihood of people taking social action on this issue is how descriptions of inequality are framed. Bruckmüller, Reese, and Martiny (2017) have shown that relatively subtle variations in such framing, such as whether an advantaged group is described as having more or a disadvantaged group is described as having less, influence perceptions of the legitimacy of these differences; larger differences between groups were evaluated as less legitimate when the disadvantaged group was described as having less. Perceptions of the illegitimacy of inequality in group outcomes are likely to evoke group‐based anger, which in turn is known to be one of the predictors of collective action (Van Zomeren, Spears, Fischer, & Leach, 2004).

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