Are the Rich Essentially Better Than the Poor?

Over the past year, we have awakened to the reality of income inequality. “Occupy Wall Street” did not really change anything, but it did make it harder to deny the growing disparity of wealth in this country, and it got us thinking of its impact on our social fabric.

How to explain it? What to do about it? It is an uncomfortable fact, the kind of fact we tend to soft pedal if not ignore. That’s not just because it’s hard to know what to do about it, even if we could agree politically. The difficulty is that people prefer to believe they are entitled to their advantages, just as the poor tend to blame themselves for being poor.

In times past, we often referred to the wealthier as the “better” classes, automatically ascribing to the privileged greater intelligence, refinement, and drive. To be sure, they were arguably better educated, better mannered, more worldly and sophisticated, because they had the advantage of being richer. But, today, research shows that the rich think that there is something about them that is essentially superior. They are rich because they are better to begin with.

Mathew Hutson, writing in Slate, reported on research to confirm the existence of this illusion: “the higher people perceived their social class to be, the more strongly they endorsed . . . beliefs [in a just world] . . . . 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.”

One way of explaining this is to see it as bias: “Privilege is often invisible, especially one’s own.” But the researchers were interested in a more fundamental and pernicious explanation. Was the perception akin to race or gender, something that people accepted as fundamentally true about themselves, essential to their identity? They “wanted to know if we see social class as an essential category.” (See Slate, “Social Darwinism Isn’t Dead.”)

And that is exactly what they discovered: “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.”

Hutson notes: “There is a grain of truth to social class essentialism; the few studies on the subject estimate that income, educational attainment, and occupational status are perhaps at least 10 percent genetic (and maybe much more). It makes sense that talent and drive, some portion of which are related to genetic variation, contribute to success.”

But the really interesting and troubling side of this is that it doesn’t work the other way: “One repercussion of social class essentialism is a lack of forgiveness for criminals and cheaters.” In other words, we take credit when we can. Otherwise we gladly seek out excuses, and protect our self-esteem from reproach and blame.

In short, the rich see themselves as better because they are rich, and the poor see themselves as victims, poor because there were derived of opportunities to become rich.

That’s not a good place to start if you want to change things.