Why the Wealthy Tend to Think They're Better Than Everybody Else

A growing body of academic research suggests that the wealthy see the world differently than the rest of us.

These studies are more than a matter of passing interest. Last week, the Center for Responsive Politics released a report that for the first time ever, a majority of those representing us in Congress are millionaires. And studies by political scientists Larry Bartels at Princeton and Trinity University’s Thomas Hayes have demonstrated that lawmakers vote to advance the interests of the wealthiest Americans. So in an effective plutocracy, the worldviews of ‘high-status’ individuals translate directly into public policies that affect us all.

Building on earlier research that found that those at the top tend to see themselves as being inherently more deserving than average working people, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and Michael Kraus, a colleague at the University of Illinois, looked at how those views might influence the way they view our criminal justice system in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Moyers & Company spoke with Keltner about the scholars’ findings last week. Below is a transcript of our discussion that’s been edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Holland: When I hear the word ‘essentialism,’ I think of debunked ideas that certain ethnic groups have innate talents or innate shortcomings. The idea that, say, Hispanics are inherently lazy, or Asians are genetically predisposed to be good at math. What is ‘class essentialism’?

Dacher Keltner: The concept of essentialism that you describe has long been with us. It really has no scientific grounding whatsoever, but the belief persists.

Michael Kraus and I got interested in thinking about the social class essentialism that appeared in some of our findings, and it reduces to a simple belief that people who are wealthy or poor are really different biological types. They have different genes; they are categorically almost different kinds of people.

Holland: So it’s the idea that those who have attained a high degree of social status are simply better people, is that fair to say?

Keltner: Yes. I mean, we didn’t necessarily anticipate that in our work, but we keep finding this notion that people from the upper strata of society, as they contemplate their own success and think about why others have less, they arrive at essentialist explanations of their affluence — that it’s due to their better genes, that they have a temperament that’s built for success, that they’re just the kind of people — independent of the neighborhood or society they’re born into — who rise to the top.

Holland: How did you come to this conclusion?

Keltner: We’ve been looking at this in different ways. We asked people from different class backgrounds — people in the upper strata making $150–200,000 a year and then those from the lower strata – to explain why some people are doing well and why wealth is expanding for certain individuals. And in that early study, we found this tendency for upper-class individuals to attribute success to superior traits and special talents — and genius, if you will — and for people from lower economic backgrounds to attribute it to cultural or historical or contextual factors, such as having a good chance to get a solid education.

More recently, we examined it much more directly. We asked people from different class backgrounds to think about the rich and the poor. And then we asked them, “To what extend do you think that these categories, rich and poor, are about people who have different genes, or different temperaments, or different biological makeups?” And again we found this similar pattern, which is that upper class individuals think of class as being based in biology and genes, and you don’t see that belief in people who are less wealthy.

Holland: It makes me think of the late, great Molly Ivins. She used to say that George W. Bush was “born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”

Keltner: That very notion motivated some of this work. When you are born into a life of great opportunity and privilege in American society, where your schools are good and your neighborhood has great parks and there’s good food around, and quality afterschool programs, and all the things that wealthy individuals have preferential access to, you would hope that would factor into their theories of why they succeed — and we’re finding that it’s not so salient in how they view their lives.

Holland: You and Michael Kraus conducted a series of experiments, and in some instances, you manipulated the perceived social status of individuals to make sure that you weren’t confusing correlation and causation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Keltner: A lot of the findings that I’ve just described linking your class background to how you explain success in life and whether you attribute it to essentialist/genetic factors or more historical/contextual factors, are correlational. They’re based on a person’s family income or where they place themselves on a ten-rung ladder in terms of society’s classes, and then that self-assessment correlates with these outcomes.

That opens up all kinds of alternative explanations for our results. So we really wanted to turn to causal experimental evidence, and Michael developed this powerful technique in which you engage people in a social comparison, where you ask them to compare their station in US society to people who are doing really well, like the Bill Gates and Oprah Winfreys. And people end up, in that comparison process, ranking themselves lower. They feel like, “Well, I’m not doing as well as I thought.”

In another group, we get people to enter into more of an upper-class mindset, where they compare themselves to the people who aren’t doing as well — to the homeless family they might encounter on the street or the people who’ve lost jobs — and that thought process lifts up people’s sense of social class and they feel that they’re higher up the ladder than they would otherwise report. And what we find is, once in that mindset of belonging to a higher class, individuals were more likely to endorse more essentialist views of class categories.

Holland: I’m always struck by how different scholars working with different methodologies find complementary results. Your colleague, Paul Piff, found that the wealthy tend to be more likely to have a sense of entitlement than average people. He also found that they were more likely to exhibit narcissistic traits. These all seem to be perfectly complementary.

Keltner: Yeah, Paul Piff’s findings and Michael Kraus’s earlier findings — and studies by Hazel Markus, and Nicole Stephens at Stanford — are all consistent. We take great heart when different scientific approaches converge on a notion or an idea, and this is all converging on this idea that there’s something about wealth and privilege that makes people perhaps a little too self-focused. And they lose sight of the great breaks they get in life, thinking, as you said, that if you’re born on third it’s because you hit a triple.

And also, importantly, we find that when you are born and live in the lower socioeconomic strata, you tend to be a little bit more sophisticated in how you perceive the contextual factors that influence life. You’re more attuned to your context and your neighborhood and the people around you.

Holland: This brings us to what I, at least, find to be the most interesting result of this study. You looked at how class essentialism correlates with people’s views of our criminal justice system.

Keltner: It was one of our deep motivations for doing this work. In psychological approaches to punishment, you can think about many different kinds of punishment or motives for punishment. And one way to parse that is to think about punishment being retributive — that is kind of an ‘eye for an eye’ form of justice, where the punishment matches the severity of the crime and is really about giving people their just desserts — versus a restorative form of punishment, where the idea is to have a punishment that allows people to regain their dignity and, for people who’ve perpetrated crimes, to improve and to get back in touch with their conscience and their standing in society.

What we’ve learned in this study is that if you think that there are just bad people out there, because of their genes, because of their temperament, because of their biological makeup, you won’t have much hope in restorative justice or restorative punishment. You won’t think there’s really any opportunity for them to change.

And what we’ve found is that because they have this belief that the people who aren’t doing well aren’t doing well because of their genes, upper-class individuals — or people put into this upper-class mindset — are more likely to endorse harsher, more retributive forms of punishment. That’s true when thinking about crimes and also kids cheating in schools — all manner of transgressions. I think that’s really worrisome.

And I’m not only worried about our punitive tendencies. I’d also extend this analysis to other policy areas. For example, the idea of devoting resources to those in need, people who are struggling, is a foundational element of a strong state. And our data would suggest that the well-to-do, who are more likely to be in office, won’t have that intuition about directing resources to those in need. I think there are many applications of this work.

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