Rich people from humble origins are less sensitive to the challenges of poverty than those born rich

July 10, 2022

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Rich people from humble origins are less sensitive to the challenges of poverty than those born rich

People who become wealthy in the United States and elsewhere may tend to boast of their humble beginnings, but new research finds that they may be less sympathetic to the difficulties of being poor than those who were born rich.

Prior research has focused on how beliefs about social mobility influence political and economic attitudes, but this new research, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, examines how the experiences of upward mobility can shape a person’s worldview.

What the researchers say: “In the United States, we find that people expect those who became rich to be more sympathetic toward the poor and social welfare than those who were born rich,” said the lead author. “However, the ‘Became Rich’ perceive improving one’s socioeconomic conditions as less difficult relative to the ‘Born Rich’, which predicts less sympathetic attitudes toward the poor and to the redistribution of wealth.”

In their first two studies, the researchers surveyed 736 people in the U.S. and found that people viewed those who became rich (the Became Rich) more positively than those who were born rich (the Born Rich), and expected the Became Rich to be more supportive of the poor and social welfare. They went on to survey 1,032 relatively wealthy individuals in the U.S. (with annual incomes over $80,000 in one study and over $142,501 in another), discovering that those who became rich thought it was easier to improve one’s socioeconomic status than people who were born rich, and this, in turn, predicted reduced sympathetic attitudes toward the poor.

“There are all sorts of stories and cultural narratives about the rich, what they’re like, and how they behave. Our findings suggest that not all rich people may be the same,” said the researchers, “what seems to make a difference is how they got rich.”

They focused their final study on simulating the experience of upward mobility using a thought experiment to see if imagining upward mobility would affect participants’ view of those who had not advanced. Participants in the upwardly mobile group did think it was easier to get ahead, which led to reduced sympathy toward those struggling to move up.

“There are likely many wealthy people who do not match the patterns we document who are sympathetic toward the poor and social welfare. We are showing basic trends, but there are likely to be many exceptions to the patterns we document,” cautioned the lead author.

The current research, the researcher’s note, suggests that people should reconsider the cultural narratives surrounding the two wealthy groups in society and that upward social mobility may have certain social downsides, causing those who have successfully achieved it to be less sympathetic toward others who are struggling.

“Just because someone has been in your shoes, doesn’t necessarily mean they care about you,” the researchers surmised. “Overcoming a certain difficulty may, by its very nature, cause people to be less sympathetic toward those experiencing that same difficulty because they overcame it.”

So, what? This is an interesting piece of research and ties in with our own observations of the leaders of organizations and governments throughout the world. Frequently these people have made their way up the social and economic ladder and in our observation, they tend to have less sympathy for their employees or, in the case of politicians, for the welfare of their constituents.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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