If you’re doing well, you believe success comes to those who deserve it, and those of lower status must not deserve it.
They started by developing a scale for measuring essentialistic beliefs about class. A diverse group of American adults rated their endorsement of such statements as “I think even if everyone wore the same clothing, people would still be able to tell your social class,” and “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining their genes.” On average, people rated the items a 3.43, where 1 means completely disagree and 7 means completely agree.
Participants also gave a subjective rating, from 1 to 10, of their own social class rank within their community, based on education, income, and occupational status. The researchers found that higher social class was associated with greater social class essentialism. This pattern remained even after controlling for political orientation as well as objective measures of a participant’s income and education level, indicating that it’s one’s senseof being above or below others, not one’s actual resources, that drives the result.
Kraus and Keltner looked deeper into the connection between social class and social class essentialism by testing participants’ belief in a just world, asking them to evaluate such statements as “I feel that people get what they are entitled to have.” The psychologist Melvin Lerner developed just world theory in the 1960s, arguing that we’re motivated to believe that the world is a fair place. The alternative—a universe where bad things happen to good people—is too upsetting. So we engage defense mechanisms such as blaming the victim—“She shouldn’t have dressed that way”—or trusting that positive and negative events will be balanced out by karma, a form of magical thinking.
Kraus and Keltner found that the higher people perceived their social class to be, the more strongly they endorsed just-world beliefs, and that this difference explained their increased social class essentialism: 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. (Incidentally, the argument that you “deserve” anything because of your genes is philosophically contentious; none of us did anything to earn our genes.)
Higher-class Americans may well believe life is fair because they’re motivated to defend their egos and lifestyle, but there’s an additional twist to their greater belief in a just world. Numerous researchers have found that 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. This matches reality in many ways for these respective groups. The rich do generally have the freedom to pursue their desires and strengths, while for the poor, external limitations often outnumber their opportunities. The poor realize they could have the best genes in the world and still end up working at McDonald’s. The wealthy might not merely be turning a blind eye to such realities; due to their personal experience, they might actually have a blind spot.
Thanks to Tony Munter.