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