How the Rich are Different from the Poor I: Choice

Middle class individuals' lives are defined by choice.

Posted Jul 19, 2012

In the many conversations that F. Scott Fitzgerald had with his friend Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald was believed to have said that "The rich are different from the poor." Hemingway's alleged response: "Yes, they have more money."

While this conversation may have never occurred, it goes without saying that the rich do indeed differ from the poor. In this first part of a four part series I will be exploring precisely how the rich differ from the poor—in a psychological sense at least. In this first post, I examine how one's social class status--that is, the money, education, and occupation status of one's family—influences the concept of choice.

You may not be aware of just how important choice is in your everyday life. In short, we make choices for everything—what to wear, what to eat, when to get up, what to do today, whom to marry, when to have children, etc... Our lives are dominated by choices. What researchers are finding in psychology right now is that one's social class position dramatically influences how a person interprets their choices.

For people from relatively wealthier, more educated, and more affluent sectors of society—for example, those people with a 4-year college degree--making choices is a fundamental part of your social life, and of how you think about yourself. Why is this the case? Take a moment to think about the early environment of a child growing up in a college educated household: This child will be accustomed to making choices even at very early stages of life. For instance, an infant may be given a choice in his/her meal, a choice of toys to play with during the day. When the child grows older, he/she will be presented with choices regarding the type of sports team to join, or musical instrument to play. In college, students are given choice of major/minor specialty and are encouraged to choose the major that best fits their unique talents and skills. All told, children from relatively upper-class families become used to the idea of choosing for themselves, and enjoy the chance to make unique choices that differentiate themselves from others.

Now consider the environments of relatively less educated and affluent children. For these individuals, fewer resources means that there are fewer choices in life (fewer choices at meals, fewer toys to choose from, fewer future job opportunities, fewer choices of neighborhoods to live in, etc...). This early environment increases the likelihood that choices are less valued and important to relatively lower-class individuals. Instead, these individuals would rather blend in than make unique choices to set them apart from others.

A series of studies by my colleague Nicole Stephens at Northwestern University provides support for these predictions regarding choice. For instance, when asked to choose a pen amongst many, high school educated individuals were more likely to choose a pen that resembled other pens, reflecting their desire to make choices that help them blend in with others. In contrast, college-educated individuals were more likely to choose the unique pen, reflecting their desire to stand out from others.

In another study, Stephens and colleagues asked individuals from working class occupations (i.e., fire fighters) about their feelings about making the same choice as a friend (e.g., buying the same car as a friend). For these working class individuals, making the same choice as a friend engendered positive affect. For individuals with a Masters in business administration, this same choice made the individual feel irritated.

In a final study by Stephens and colleagues, people from high school and college educated backgrounds were offered a pen as a gift for completing an experiment. The high school educated participants were happy with receiving this gift. The college-educated participants wanted to choose a pen for themselves.

Taken together, it seems that social class environments dramatically alter how we feel about our everyday choices (even choices about what type of pen to use!). This core psychological difference that shapes the lives of relatively upper- and lower-class individuals is likely to extend to several domains. One, in particular, relates to patterns of empathy. We will consider that research in Part II!

Check out Psych Your Mind for more on social class!

Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., & Markus, H. R. (2011). When Choice Does Not Equal Freedom: A Sociocultural Analysis of Agency in Working-Class American Contexts Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550610378757

Stephens, N. M., Markus, H. R., & Townsend, S. (2007). Choice as an act of meaning: The case of social class Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.93.5.814 

Kraus MW, Piff PK, Mendoza-Denton R, Rheinschmidt ML, & Keltner D (2012). Social class, solipsism, and contextualism: How the rich are different from the poor. Psychological review, 119 (3), 546-72 PMID: 22775498