This is one of those studies with results that more or less obvious to those who aren’t the ones being studied, but Matthew Huston’s Slate analysis of it is still an interesting read. Excerpt:
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.
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.
I also, in particular, recommend checking out the second page of the article, where Huston gets into assessing the practical ramifications of these findings.
Understanding the psychology of both the wealthy and the reasonably comfortable economic strata will give us a better idea of which rhetoric by supporters of various social justice agendas (and justice system reform agendas) is effective or ineffective, in terms of selling the agenda to the unconverted. That kind of thing — figuring out whether rhetorical appeals are landing or missing the mark within people’s existing worldviews — is right in my area of interest.
There’s also reason to be very concerned about the high levels of wealth in Congress here in America (as well as in the ruling Conservative Party in the UK, according to Huston) in terms of what legislative actions they might take to reinforce existing inequality. It’s one thing to casually neglect a population because you’re just wildly out of touch with the plight of the impoverished. It’s an entirely other and even more pernicious thing to intentionally start rolling back prior efforts to help the poor or propose expanding harsh sentencing targeted at low-income populations and (poorer than the average) minority racial populations because you think they somehow “deserve” their condition and should be kept away from the superior humans. In recent decades, that agenda is exactly what we’ve seen a lot of.
If we don’t figure out the political communication pathway to appeal to the middle classes effectively and convince them that this worldview isn’t true, we’re in for a big resurgence of open social Darwinism.