Wednesday, 30 September 2015

They deny it, but the middle classes have a subconscious positive bias toward the rich

"Eat the rich, it’s all that they’re good for" is a refrain familiar to my growing-up-in-the-90s ears. To many people today, the upper classes remain fair game for criticism, whether derided as Ivy-League elites, tax-dodging CEOs, or the undeserving gentry. But although many of us may claim to hold negative views about the wealthy, a new study published in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations says our implicit preferences tell a different story. A story we might call "Confessions of a secret rich-lover" …

Across the experiments we’re about to discuss, the participants – US adults recruited online mainly from the middle class – explicitly disclaimed holding those higher on the economic ladder in high esteem. For instance, they were more likely to agree with items like “I don’t like rich people very much” than to similar items referring to the middle class. Middle class beats the rich, on the surface. But what lies beneath?

To find out, Yale researchers Suzanne Horwitz and John Dovidio had participants complete a version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which has been used by psychologists in the past to reveal people’s race-, age-, and sex-based biases, and more recently negative attitudes to the poor. In this test, participants have to use just two computer keyboard keys to categorise words flashed on-screen. The standard categories are "good" words (e.g. wonderful, excellent) and "bad" (e.g. horrible, nasty), and the participants’ task is to respond as fast as possible, pressing the key for the good category when they see what they consider a good word and the key denoting the bad category when they see a bad word.

Specific to this study, other words in the same test had to be classed as fitting a rich category (e.g. high income, upper class, rich) or middle class category (e.g. average income, middle class, typical), using the same two keys that were also used for categorising good and bad words. Crucially, when categorising a word as rich or good required use of the same key, faster participant performance (vs. when the rich and bad categories were paired with the same key) would suggest that participants subconsciously considered being rich as a good thing rather than a bad thing. And indeed, across the four experiments, participants showed such a positive bias toward the rich, which was larger than the bias they showed towards their own group of the middle class.

In one experiment, participants completed two IATs, one as described and another pitting attitudes toward the middle class against those toward the poor. Horowitz and Dovidio wondered whether favouring the rich and disliking the poor were intertwined attitudes or independent – as is the case in attitudes towards weight, where pro-thinness is distinct from anti-fatness. Analysis showed that IAT anti-poor scores didn’t predict IAT pro-rich scores – and in fact, explicit attitudes to rich and poor were also independent, suggesting these attitudes are also distinct – in other words, just because a person was subconsciously or overtly pro-rich, it didn’t follow that they would also be subconsciously or overtly anti-poor (or vice versa).

A final experiment suggested that, given the right conditions, our implicit feelings toward the rich predict how we judge various social situations. Another 78 middle-class participants read a vignette in which two risk-taking drivers collide – a wealthy one in a Jag roadster, the other, middle class in an old Toyota – and then they rated each driver independently on how blameworthy, careless and bad they were. Explicit attitudes weren’t related to their judgments, but IAT performance was – those participants with a larger pro-rich bias on the IAT were softer towards the Jag driver. Given debate about whether implicit attitudes are effective in predicting wider consequences, this finding is important, although we should note the vignette was carefully designed not to trigger stereotype-related explicit attitudes that might swamp the effect; we might expect a different pattern for other situations, such as a rich person coldly ignoring a request for help.

Why do middle-class people harbour deep-seated positive regard for the rich? Unlike with other non-majority groups, the wealthy benefit from historically positive representations. Lay this alongside the popular idea of meritocracy – you get what you deserve – and it’s clear how implicit esteem for the rich might drip-drip in. Furthermore, many people, especially in the US, are incentivised against hardening their hearts to the rich – due to the hope that one day, they’ll be living next door to them.


Horwitz, S., & Dovidio, J. (2015). The rich--love them or hate them? Divergent implicit and explicit attitudes toward the wealthy Group Processes & Intergroup Relations DOI: 10.1177/1368430215596075

--further reading--
Students motivated by wealth are just as likely as others to help in an emergency
The downside of being good-looking AND wealthy
Seeing others as less than human

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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