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Do the Most Educated People Look Down on Everyone Else?

People high on the social ladder are the most fearful of expressing themselves.

Key points

  • There is a "central" and a "peripheral" path to persuasion.
  • Prestige often matters more than truth.
  • People who are already at the top of the social ladder have the strongest desire for social status.
  • Education is associated with less positive views of other people.
Source: AJR_photo/Shutterstock

Many have discovered an argument hack. They don’t need to argue that something is false. They just need to show that it's associated with low status. The converse is also true: You don’t need to argue that something is true. You just need to show that it’s associated with high status. And when low-status people express the truth, it sometimes becomes high-status to lie.

In the 1980s, the psychologists Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo developed the “Elaboration Likelihood Model” to describe how persuasion works. “Elaboration” here means the extent to which a person carefully thinks about the information. When people's motivation and ability to engage in careful thinking are present, the “elaboration likelihood” is high. This means people are likely to pay attention to the relevant information and draw conclusions based on the merits of the arguments of the message.

Two Paths to Persuasion

The idea is that there are two paths to persuading others. The first type, termed the “central” route comes from careful and thoughtful consideration of the messages we hear. When the central route is engaged, we actively evaluate the information presented, and try to discern whether it’s true or not.

When the “peripheral” route is engaged, we pay more attention to cues besides the actual information or content of the message. For example, we might evaluate someone’s argument based on how attractive they are or where they were educated, without considering the actual merits of their message.

When we accept a message through the peripheral route, we tend to be more passive than when we accept a message through the central route.

The renowned psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelly Taylor have characterized humans as “cognitive misers.” They write, “People are limited in their capacity to process information, so they take shortcuts whenever they can.”

As motivation and/or ability to process arguments is decreased, peripheral cues become more important for persuasion.

When we update our beliefs by weighing the actual merits of an argument (central route), our updated beliefs tend to endure and are more robust against counterpersuasion, compared to when we update our beliefs through peripheral processing. If we come to believe something through careful and thoughtful consideration, that belief is more resilient to change.

Which means we can be more easily manipulated through the peripheral route. If we are convinced of something via the peripheral route, a manipulator will be more successful at using the peripheral route once again to alter our initial belief.

Social Consequences of Our Beliefs

In his influential theory of social comparison processes, psychologist Leon Festinger suggested that people evaluate the “correctness” of their opinions by comparing them to the opinions of others. When we see others hold the same beliefs as us, our own confidence in those beliefs increases.

Taking these ideas together, they suggest that people have a mechanism in their minds. It stops them from saying something that could lower their status, even if it's true. And it propels them to say something that could increase their status, even if it's false.

Furthermore, considerations of what happens to our own reputation often guide our beliefs, leading us to adopt a popular view to preserve or enhance our social positions. We implicitly ask ourselves, “What are the social consequences of holding (or not holding) this belief?”

But our reputation isn’t the only thing that matters when considering what to believe. Equally important is the reputation of others. Returning to the peripheral route of persuasion, we decide whether to believe something not only if lots of people believe it, but also if the proponent of the belief is a prestigious person.

High-Status Role Models

This starts when we are children. In her book Cognitive Gadgets, the Oxford psychologist Cecilia Hayes writes, “children show prestige bias; they are more likely to copy a model that adults regard as being higher social status- for example, their head-teacher rather than an equally familiar person of the same age and gender.”

Still, we don’t copy others with high status solely because they hope that mimicking them will boost their own status. We tend to believe that prestigious people are more competent; prominence is a heuristic for skill.

In a recent paper about prestige-based social learning, researchers Ángel V. Jiménez and Alex Mesoudi wrote that assessing competence directly “may be noisy and costly. Instead, social learners can use short-cuts either by making inferences from the appearance, personality, material possessions, etc. of the models.”

Prestige Paradox

Which brings us to a question: Who is most susceptible to manipulation via peripheral persuasion? It might seem intuitive to believe that people with less education are more manipulable. But research suggests this may not be true.

High-status people are more preoccupied with how others view them.

The psychology professor Keith Stanovich, discussing his research on “myside bias,” has written, “if you are a person of high intelligence... you will be less likely than the average person to realize you have derived your beliefs from the social groups you belong to and because they fit with your temperament and your innate psychological propensities.”

Students and graduates of top universities are more prone to myside bias. They are more likely to, “evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior beliefs, opinions, and attitudes.”

This is not unique to our own time. William Shirer, the American journalist and author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, described his experiences as a war correspondent in Nazi Germany. Shirer wrote, “Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, beer hall, or café, I would meet with outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious they were parroting nonsense they heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but one was met with such incredulity, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty.”

Likewise, in a study on the collapse of the Soviet Union, researchers found that university-educated people were 2 to 3 times more likely than high school graduates to support the Communist Party. White-collar professional workers were similarly 2 to 3 times more supportive of communist ideology, relative to manual laborers.

Patterns within the U.S. today are consistent with such findings. The political analyst David Shor has observed that “Highly educated people tend to have more ideologically coherent and extreme views than working-class ones. We see this in issue polling and ideological self-identification. College-educated voters are way less likely to identify as moderate.”

One reason for this may be that regardless of time or place, affluent members of society more are likely to say the right things to either preserve status or gain more of it.

A recent set of studies led by Cameron Anderson at UC Berkeley found that social class was positively associated with the desire for social status. People who had more education and money were more likely to agree with statements like “I enjoy having influence over other people’s decision making” and “It would please me to have a position of prestige and social standing.”

Social Status Loss Aversion

Who feels most in danger of losing their reputations? Turns out, those same exact people. A survey by the Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov asked a nationally representative sample of 2,000 Americans questions about self-censorship.

They found that 25 percent of those with a high school education or less are afraid of getting fired or hurting their employment prospects because of their political views, compared with an astounding 44 percent of people with a postgraduate degree.

Results from a recent paper titled “Keeping Your Mouth Shut: Spiraling Self-Censorship in the United States” by the political scientists James L. Gibson and Joseph L. Sutherland are consistent with the findings from Cato/YouGov. They find that self-censorship has skyrocketed. In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, 13.4 percent of Americans reported that they “felt less free to speak their mind than they used to.” By 2019, 40 percent of Americans reported that they did not feel free to speak their minds. This isn’t a partisan issue. Gibson and Sutherland report that “The percentage of Democrats who are worried about speaking their mind is just about identical to the percentage of Republicans who self-censor: 39 and 40 percent, respectively.”

The increase is especially pronounced among the educated class. The researchers report, “It is also noteworthy and perhaps unexpected that those who in engage in self-censorship are not those with limited political resources… self-censorship is most common among those with the highest levels of education... This finding suggests a social learning process, with those with more education being more cognizant of social norms that discourage the expression of one’s views.”

Interestingly, there is suggestive evidence indicating that education is negatively associated with one’s sense of power. That is, the more education someone has, the more likely they are to agree with statements like, “Even if I voice them, my views have little sway” and “My ideas and opinions are often ignored.” Granted, the correlation is quite small (r = -.15). Still, the finding is significant and in the opposite direction of what most people would expect.

Highly Educated People Hold Low Opinions of Others

It’s also useful to understand how highly educated people view others and their social relationships. Consider a paper titled “Seeing the Best or Worst in Others: A Measure of Generalized Other-Perceptions” led by Richard Rau at the University of Münster.

Researchers asked participants to evaluate people in the social media profiles and videos. Participants were asked how much they agreed with statements like “I like this person,” and “This person is cold-hearted.” Then participants responded to various questions about themselves.

Higher education was consistently related to less positive views of people. The paper concludes, “to understand people’s feelings, behaviors, and social relationships, it is of key importance to know which general view they hold about others... the better people are educated, the less positive their other-perceptions are.”

So affluent people care the most about status, believe they have little power, are afraid of losing their jobs and reputation, and have less favorable views of others.

In short, opinions can confer status regardless of their truth value. And the individuals most likely to express certain opinions in order to preserve or enhance their status are also those who are already on the upper rungs of the social ladder.

A version of this post was also published at Quillette.

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