Sunday, October 9, 2011

Class Warfare

"I think it's dangerous, this class warfare." -- Mitt Romney (2012 presidential candidate)

In the last week or so, everyday Americans have taken to the street, Wall Street to be exact, to express their discontent with the current economic climate. In short, the bottom 99% of Americans are upset about economic inequality, and rightly so. After all, American economic inequality is worse than every other developed country (we've discussed this inequality here and here). In particular, there seems to be striking inequality in salary between average workers and corporate CEOs  (262:1 and rising).

Of course, not everyone is supportive of movements like these, which seek to diminish the pay disparities between the wealthy and the less-so. For instance, Herman Cain, the godfather of pizza (now current republican presidential candidate) said this about the protestors:  "Don't blame Wall Street, and don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and are not rich, blame yourself." Apparently, a portion of people out there believe that people have personal responsibility for the amount of money they make and that wealth is gained through hard work, ability, and talent. But who exactly are these people?

My first research in graduate school was designed to answer this very question. We examined university student subjective ratings of their socioeconomic status. In this measure, students rate themselves at the top of the ladder representing society, if they come from families that are rich, well-educated, and that have parents who hold high-profile occupations. At the bottom are people who think their families are less rich, educated, and sporadically employed. We also measured political orientation (the extent participants reported being liberal v. conservative). We then showed participants this graph:

We then asked participants: What are the most important causes of this inequality? What did our participants say?

Interestingly, participants tended to favor dispositional explanations over contextual explanations on average. That means our participants thought inequality was due to internal states, personal abilities, and individual actions (e.g., hard work, ability and talent) rather than external forces (e.g., inheritance, political influence, education opportunities). This result is not surprising, given that people in the USA tend to favor dispositional explanations more broadly--it's a product of our individualistic culture. What was interesting is that participants who came from families that they perceived to be wealthy and educated tended to favor these dispositional explanations more than their less wealthy/educated counterparts. Said another way, students from upper-class families tended to believe that economic inequality was a result of individual effort, ability, and talent, whereas their lower-class counterparts believed that the same inequality was due to external forces (e.g., political influence, educational opportunities).

We reasoned that the heightened sense of personal control explained these findings: upper-class individuals come from environments of abundant material and social resources, and these conditions foster beliefs that individuals are better able to influence the social environment. In contrast, lower-class individuals come from social environments of reduced resources and rank, and these environments foster beliefs that the external environment and other individuals will exert influence over the individual. Thus, people like Herman Cain tend to dwell in social environments that foster beliefs that wealth is all about hard work and ability, whereas less wealthy individuals tend to see the influence of external forces more easily (Oh and by the way, more conservative minded individuals also tended to show this dispositional explanatory style, though this effect was independent of social class!).
Blame yourselves!!! (source)

So there you go, we can explain Herman Cain's words as a simple product of the prevailing environments that he dwells within, that increase his sense of personal control and continue to reinforce his beliefs that the poor and jobless are responsible for the unfairness in our economy.

What are your reactions to the occupation of Wall Street or to the words of Herman Cain? Let us know in the comments!

Kraus MW, Piff PK, & Keltner D (2009). Social class, sense of control, and social explanation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97 (6), 992-1004 PMID: 19968415


  1. OR...

    ...persons who hold that self-disposition is significant are more likely to pursue challenging yet rewarding endeavors, such as working 16 hours a day.

    Nice way to fail at being critical in building a model.

    If I think this post is stupid, forgive me. Both my parents are immigrants, had nothing in their pockets when they arrived here, worked harder than you ever will, earned good money, and all along saw the value in hard work.

  2. Wow, sean.albo.nicolle. Talk about (unwittingly) proving the author's point. Well done.

  3. Thanks for your comments Tim and S.A.N.

    This research doesn't suggest that hard work is/isn't important. Rather, it suggests that people from upper-class environments tend to believe hard work/talent/ability are more important causes of wealth and poverty trends in America than other more external influences.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. @ author, I apologize for sounding harsh. It was kneejerk anger, but I felt you were presenting a causal implication. This doesn't really justify my attitude. I appreciate your not responding to the negative tone with equal negativity.

    @ Tim, care to back up your statement with actual reasoning? Maybe explain what this supposed connection is between my response and validating the causative claims? Where exactly does the data suggest that being affluent induces one one to believe that effort pays off?

    BTW Tim, in order for my claim to validate those claims, you would have to know my beliefs regarding locus of control. Tell me Tim, do you know my beliefs regarding locus of control?

  5. Excellent post. Thank you, Michael.

    I was hoping my favorite (and most relevant) psychology blog would tackle issues around the #occupywallstreet movement.

    I was lucky enough to get to spend a day at #occupyla last week and it was a fantastic experience.

    Thank you for providing objective analysis of some of the issues surrounding this fascinating movement.


  6. BTW, the unintended implication here is as follows:

    If improving locus of control served no purpose in improving capacity to effect change in the environment/improve ones prospects, then working to develop the sense of self-efficacy in at-risk youth is a waste of time. Seeing as I love working in this way with at-risk youth, I have to say that there's no way that a person's perspective of their abilities has no bearing on their opportunities.

    More respectfully than previously,

  7. Thanks everyone, as always, for your great comments!

    @Daniel, I've been fascinated by the movement as well, and happy to see other people out there practicing their rights to disagree with current economic policies. Go you! #occupywallstreet

    @Sean, as you know from your own experiences with at-risk youth, feeling a sense of control is important for well-being more broadly. A lot of research indicates, for example, that a healthy dose of control can make you healthier. That said, living in social environments with healthy amounts of personal control is associated with making dispositional attributions more broadly. As researchers, we need to ask some critical questions (like we all are in these comments) about what that means for judgments of social issues like wealth/poverty.

    Thanks for reading!

  8. Yes, Sean, I did fail to make the links you mentioned. My comment was flippant and incorrect. I apologize.

    I should have simply stated that your presentation of anecdotal evidence w/r/t your parents might serve to support one of the study's claims; a person's environment (upbringing) fosters beliefs regarding whether internal or external forces exert more control over one's economic outcomes.

  9. Even if higher income and wealth is determined largely by hard work, ability and talent, the key to growth and prosperity is the functioning of the overall economic system, not individual achievement.

    If the economic system functions such that income increasingly gravitates to the top 1% or even 5%, then the system is bound to falter. If the bottom 95-99% of the population has less and less income to buy the goods and services produced in the economy, production has to slow. This is recession.

    Income and wealth at the top has to be recycled one way or another to the rest so they can buy the goods and services produced in order for the system to keep growing.

  10. Thanks for the comment Winston, and I agree in principle that an economy that is top-heavy seems bound to falter.

    However, our economy has survived previous recessionary periods with only cosmetic changes in government policy. I'm not certain how that happens, but I'm curious about your thoughts!