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Monday, August 1, 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

Koo, H. J., Piff, P. K., & Shariff, A. F. (2022). 
Social Psychological and Personality Science.


Americans venerate rags-to-riches stories. Here we show that people view those who became rich more positively than those born rich and expect the Became Rich to be more sympathetic toward social welfare (Studies 1a and b). However, we also find that these intuitions are misguided. Surveys of wealthy individuals (Studies 2a and b) reveal that, 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. Corroborating this, imagining having experienced upward mobility (vs. beginning and staying at the top) causes people to view such mobility as less difficult, reducing empathy and support for those failing to move up (Study 3). These findings suggest that becoming rich may shift views about the poor in ways that run counter to common intuitions and cultural assumptions.

General Discussion

Across five preregistered studies, we found that people expect the Became Rich to hold more sympathetic attitudes toward the poor than the Born Rich (Studies 1a and b). However, our subsequent studies showed these intuitions to be misguided. In reality, the Became Rich thought it less difficult to improve one’s socioeconomic conditions than the Born Rich, views that were negatively linked to redistribution support and various sympathetic attitudes toward the poor (Studies 2a and b). Corroborating this, those induced to feel that they had moved up within an organization (vs. having a stationary high position) thought it less difficult to improve one’s position in the company, which in turn predicted reduced sympathetic attitudes toward others struggling to move up (Study 3). Contrary to lay expectations, people who have successfully achieved upward social mobility may, in fact, be less sensitive to the plight of the poor than those born into privilege.

The current study has several limitations that call for future investigation. First, we cannot definitively draw the conclusion that it is the experience of upward mobility itself that causes shifts in perceptions of difficulty. Although Study 3 is supportive of the possibility, experiencing upward mobility in the workplace may not be the same as experiencing upward mobility in real life—the latter may involve longer time periods and multiple pathways (e.g., own effort, personal connections, luck, and marriage). It will be important to more directly test our findings in future studies by using, for instance, longitudinal approaches to confirm the effect of experienced upward mobility on attitudes toward social welfare. Second, although we targeted rich individuals in the United States, online survey samples do not typically include multimillionaires and billionaires. Revisiting our findings among the super wealthy would be an important next step, given the sociopolitical influence they wield.