Sunday, July 15, 2012

How the Rich are Different from the Poor I: Choice

In the many conversations that F. Scott Fitzgerald had with his friend Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald was believed to have said that "The rich are different from the poor." Hemingway's alleged response: "Yes, they have more money."

While this conversation may have never occurred, it goes without saying that the rich do indeed differ from the poor. In this first part of a four part PYM series I will be exploring precisely how the rich differ from the poor--in a psychological sense at least. In this first post, I examine how one's social class status--that is, the money, education, and occupation status of one's family--influences the concept of choice.

You may not be aware of just how important choice is in your everyday life. In short, we make choices for everything--what to wear, what to eat, when to get up, what to do today, whom to marry, when to have children, etc... Our lives are dominated by choices. What researchers are finding in psychology right now is that one's social class position dramatically influences how a person interprets their choices.

For people from relatively wealthier, more educated, and more affluent sectors of society--for example, those people with a 4-year college degree--making choices is a fundamental part of your social life, and of how you think about yourself. Why is this the case? Take a moment to think about the early environment of a child growing up in a college educated household: This child will be accustomed to making choices even at very early stages of life. For instance, an infant may be given a choice in his/her meal, a choice of toys to play with during the day. When the child grows older, he/she will be presented with choices regarding the type of sports team to join, or musical instrument to play. In college, students are given choice of major/minor specialty and are encouraged to choose the major that best fits their unique talents and skills. All told, children from relatively upper-class families become used to the idea of choosing for themselves, and enjoy the chance to make unique choices that differentiate themselves from others.

Now consider the environments of relatively less educated and affluent children. For these individuals, fewer resources means that there are fewer choices in life (fewer choices at meals, fewer toys to choose from, fewer future job opportunities, fewer choices of neighborhoods to live in, etc...). This early environment increases the likelihood that choices are less valued and important to relatively lower-class individuals. Instead, these individuals would rather blend in than make unique choices to set them apart from others.

A series of studies by my colleague Nicole Stephens at Northwestern University provides support for these predictions regarding choice. For instance, when asked to choose a pen amongst many, high school educated individuals were more likely to choose a pen that resembled other pens, reflecting their desire to make choices that help them blend in with others. In contrast, college-educated individuals were more likely to choose the unique pen, reflecting their desire to stand out from others.

Fewer resources, fewer choices
In another study, Stephens and colleagues asked individuals from working class occupations (i.e., fire fighters) about their feelings about making the same choice as a friend (e.g., buying the same car as a friend). For these working class individuals, making the same choice as a friend engendered positive affect. For individuals with a Masters in business administration, this same choice made the individual feel irritated.

In a final study by Stephens and colleagues, people from high school and college educated backgrounds were offered a pen as a gift for completing an experiment. The high school educated participants were happy with receiving this gift. The college-educated participants wanted to choose a pen for themselves.

Taken together, it seems that social class environments dramatically alter how we feel about our everyday choices (even choices about what type of pen to use!). This core psychological difference that shapes the lives of relatively upper- and lower-class individuals is likely to extend to several domains. One in particular, relates to patterns of empathy. We will consider that research in Part II!

Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., & Markus, H. R. (2011). When Choice Does Not Equal Freedom: A Sociocultural Analysis of Agency in Working-Class American Contexts Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550610378757

Stephens, N. M., Markus, H. R., & Townsend, S. (2007). Choice as an act of meaning: The case of social class Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.93.5.814

Kraus MW, Piff PK, Mendoza-Denton R, Rheinschmidt ML, & Keltner D (2012). Social class, solipsism, and contextualism: How the rich are different from the poor. Psychological review, 119 (3), 546-72 PMID: 22775498


  1. Choice one makes in terms of economic values and early childhood experience. It is good get all the intellectual justification on one's own behaviour about the rich or poor. Above all the research which perhaps can bring some fruitful insight we need to delve more on individual power of thinking than group thinking.
    Unleash one's own potential which is independent of group influence will only bring dramatically change inwardly and outwardly in the society.


    1. Thanks for the comment Badarish. These are interesting insights. I study group-level social phenomena as a researcher, so perhaps others can take on the individual-level power of thinking, as you describe.

  2. Just curious as to whether or not there are differences in thinking among those who grew up in a working class family but then became college educated- would those individuals display different traits than individuals who grew up in college educated families and then went on to become college educated themselves?

    1. Most of what we've observed in the laboratory suggests that your early family environment is what shapes your social class. Now that doesn't mean you can't change with new experience. Of course you change. But, I think it must take time for a working class person attending college to become more like his/her peers from college educated families. Thanks for reading!

  3. Nice read. I grew up in a working class family but I was a bit spoiled so I was given things that I want most of the times only if I worked hard for it.

    So is this observation suggesting that ones perception towards their range of choices in life is dependent on the level of early childhood's exposure to choices?

    If we consider wideness of range in choices a good thing, I think parents should spoil their kids regardless of their social class... OR regularly let them practice choosing from a wide range of choices and just never expose their kids to things they cant afford to avoid letting their kids feel being denied a choice.