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Americans born rich are more sympathetic toward the poor than those who became rich

One might think that people who started poor and became rich might be more sensitive to the plights of the poor. Not so, suggests a new study.
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Key Takeaways
  • Americans generally view rich people who earned their lot in life more favorably than rich people who started wealthy.
  • But when asked, those who "Became Rich" are generally less empathetic to the less affluent than those who were "Born Rich."
  • Moreover, the "Became Rich" are more likely to believe that poor people who remain poor are at fault for their situation, and are less likely to support welfare programs.

Americans generally resent the rich, particularly those who were born into their lavish lives. And that makes intuitive sense. Central to American identity is working hard for your success. We lionize those who “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” You can’t do that when you’re already born wearing Gucci loafers.

“Became Rich” vs. “Born Rich”

As such, we tend to identify with and like wealthy people who started out in life with humbler origins. Psychologists from the University of California-Irvine and the University of British Columbia recently found strong support for this notion when they surveyed 289 Americans about their views of those who became rich or were born rich via Prolific, a website that provides screened, serious research participants.

  • 83% perceived the “Became Rich” as being more empathetic toward the poor than the “Born Rich.”
  • 70% thought that the “Became Rich” show greater support for wealth redistribution.
  • 66% thought that the “Became Rich” would be more likely to believe that it is difficult to improve one’s socioeconomic conditions.

As is clear from the results, the respondents generally expected wealthy people who worked their way up the socioeconomic ladder to be more sympathetic toward the plight of the poor compared to rich people who started wealthy. But as those same psychologists subsequently showed, this intuition was surprisingly wrong.

An unexpected find

The researchers surveyed 553 participants reporting greater than $142,500 in household income — which more than doubles the U.S. median household income of $67,521 and places them in the top 20% of earners — asking these individuals about their economic situation when growing up and probing their attitudes toward the less affluent.

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“Compared with the Born Rich, the Became Rich perceive improving one’s socioeconomic conditions as less difficult, which, in turn, predicts less empathy for the poor, less perceived sacrifices by the poor, more internal attributions for poverty, and less support for redistribution,” the researchers reported. To paraphrase, the “Became Rich” were more likely to believe that poor people who remained poor were at fault for their privation. Moreover, they were less likely to support welfare programs aimed at helping those less well off.

On the other hand, the “Born Rich” seemed more generous — perhaps because they feel guilty about their good fortune and believe they must pay for it?

Limitations

While the differences in attitudes between the “Became Rich” and “Born Rich” were statistically significant, they were still relatively small, amounting to about half a point on a ten-point scale. The researchers also noted that their study lacked multimillionaires and billionaires.

“Revisiting our findings among the super wealthy would be an important next step, given the sociopolitical influence they wield,” they wrote.

The study benefited from being pre-registered, meaning that the authors announced their hypothesis, research plan, and methods in advance. Pre-registration enhances a study’s credibility in many important respects, particularly by preventing the use of statistical tricks to obtain a positive result.

The research was published June 27th to the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.


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