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Why Those Who Overcame Poverty Have Less Sympathy for the Poor

The surprising science behind our attitudes toward those in poverty.

Key points

  • People often use shortcuts, such as vivid stories of someone they personally know, to decide how to judge others living in scarcity.
  • One study found that those who "became rich" had less sympathy for those currently experiencing poverty than those who were "born rich."
  • Steve Jobs is an example of a wealthy public figure who came from humble beginnings and was notoriously un-philanthropic.

We all love an inspiring success story where the protagonist overcomes adversity, defeats any and all obstacles that stand in their way, and becomes successful through dedication and hard work, especially when the protagonist is from humble beginnings.

One of my favorite personal examples comes from the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, in which the main character fights and finagles his way from a starving salesman who wanders the streets homeless with his son into securing a lucrative job as a New York City stockbroker by the end of the film. The movie offers an inspiring take-home message: with a lot of hard work and a dash of luck, you can drastically improve your circumstances.

Although we tend to love and resonate with this narrative, the attitudes that most people have towards those living in poverty tend to vary radically, and people use shortcuts such as vivid stories of someone they personally know or even their political beliefs when deciding how to judge those living in scarcity. Indeed, it remains a hot-button political debate (that I will cleverly avoid here) regarding how easy or difficult it is to go from rags to riches.

Recently, research has helped to provide us with an answer to this sensitive question. The short answer: How you judge the needy depends on your own personal story. But it might not be as straightforward as you would think.

Research on attitudes towards those in poverty

For one study, researchers recruited two different groups of upper-class participants (household income of $100,000+). One group labeled the “Born Rich" was from an upper-class financial background (i.e., grew up in a wealthy household) while the other group, labeled the “Became Rich," was from a lower-class financial background (i.e., grew up in a non-wealthy household but became wealthy).

The participants were then asked to report how much sympathy they had for the poor. Interestingly, the results showed that the Became Rich group, who grew up in non-wealthy households, had less sympathy for those who are experiencing poverty.

One might expect the opposite—that people who went from rags to riches know how it feels to face scarcity and would therefore be more sympathetic towards those with less financial resources, which is indeed what most people predict. Yet the research reveals that participants in the Became Rich group tend to think, “If I can do it, so can they," ironically leading to less sympathy for the needy. On the other hand, the Born Rich group had no such experience overcoming this plight, and they believed that overcoming one’s socioeconomic background was more difficult than the Became Rich group.

There are numerous examples of wealthy people who came from humble beginnings but are not always so charitable. For instance, Steve Jobs (the co-founder of Apple) came from humble beginnings and was notoriously un-philanthropic, even after becoming a billionaire. But as tends to be the case with most interesting findings, they have nuances.

Finding compassion for those less fortunate

Last weekend, I told one of my friends about this finding. She comes from humble roots. Now, she is in a top physician assistant graduate school program and has a bright financial future, so I was curious to hear what she had to say on the topic. She said that growing up, her parents supported and pushed her to achieve in the most positive way possible. Her credit goes to her emotionally supportive family, and she still has the utmost sympathy from those who were perhaps not as blessed.

Her story goes to show that it is still more than possible to have compassion for those less fortunate and acknowledge the role of supportive parenting or luck that others may not have had. Picking up yourself by your bootstraps is never easy, but it can be much easier with positive others in your corner.

References

Koo, H. J., Piff, P. K., & Shariff, A. F (2022). If I could do it, so can they: among the rich, those with humbler origins are less sensitive to the difficulties of the poor. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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