Character  &  Context

The Psychology of Social Class

Image of suburban houses clustered very close together

By the turn of the millennium, before the banking crash of 2008 and the subsequent years of economic austerity imposed on citizens by many western governments, there was a view – even among politicians in left-leaning political parties – that class-based politics was no longer relevant. In the words of the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, “We are all middle class now.” These words were uttered in 1997, probably encouraged by a rising tide of prosperity that appeared to be benefitting most, if not all, members of society. Twenty-one years later, the world looks very different. In purely economic terms, the evidence of a widening chasm of inequality between rich and poor is so compelling that the International Monetary Fund – hardly a bastion of radical political views – has acknowledged that inequality acts as a drag on economic growth, and that there is very little evidence that efforts to redistribute incomes have a negative effect on growth. Another response to this evidence of economic inequality has been a growing interest on the part of psychologists in the impact of socioeconomic status on variables ranging from self-construal to social behavior. In a review paper recently published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, I tried to summarize what we currently know about the psychology of social class.

My review attempted to integrate research conducted by American social psychologists, like Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Nicole Stephens with relevant research conducted in the UK and continental Europe. I reviewed work on how social class affects thought, encompassing social cognition and attitudes; emotion, with a focus on moral emotions and prosocial behavior; and behavior in high-prestige educational and workplace settings.

The evidence led me to conclude that differences in the material circumstances of working-class and middle-class people are associated with differences in social capital, in the form of friendship networks, and cultural capital, in the form of tacit knowledge about how systems work. These differences have lasting effects on the ways in which individuals who grow up in these diverse contexts see themselves and their social environments. For example, if you have family members or friends who have university degrees and/or professional qualifications, you are more likely to see these as possible futures for yourself than if you do not have these networks; and if through these networks you have been exposed to institutions like libraries, museums, and social practices like selection interviews, you are more likely to know how these cultural institutions and practices work, less likely to be intimidated by them, and more likely to make use of the opportunities they afford. These differences in the perception of self and social relations translate into differences in social emotions and behaviors that are noticeable to the self and others, creating the opportunity for people to rank themselves and others, and for differences in norms, values and attitudes to emerge. To the extent that high-status institutions in society, such as elite universities and prestigious employers, are characterized by norms and values that are different from those familiar to working-class people, the latter will feel uncomfortable in such institutions and will not fulfill their true potential.

Much of the psychological research on social class has been conducted in the USA, raising questions about the extent to which its findings can be generalized to other contexts. There are some important differences between the USA and other western, industrialized countries. For example, the USA is more economically unequal than virtually every other industrialized country. At the same time, the perceived degree of social mobility is greater in the USA than in other countries – although in reality social mobility is actually lower in the USA (and indeed in the UK) than in many other industrialized counties. These differences in economic inequality and beliefs about social mobility mean that the way in which these factors moderate the impact of social class are likely to vary from one country to another. To take just one example, there is evidence that Europeans who are poor or on the left of the political spectrum are more concerned and unhappy about inequality than are their American counterparts, which may well be a reflection of stronger American beliefs about social mobility.

Given the evidence that most citizens express preferences for less wealth and income inequality than what is currently seen in most societies, it is worth considering why there is not more support for redistributive policies. One factor that is known to weaken support for such policies is a belief in social mobility. Another is one’s own social standing, with higher relative positions (perhaps unsurprisingly) being associated with lower support for redistribution. A third factor is the perceived legitimacy of income inequality, with greater perceived illegitimacy associated with stronger support for redistributive policies. There is good reason to think that each of these factors is susceptible to change. For example, the fact that income inequality is so stark, in both the US and the UK, should in itself raise doubts about its legitimacy.

In summary, there is evidence that the material circumstances in which people develop and live their lives make it harder for working-class individuals to benefit from the kinds of educational and employment opportunities that would increase social mobility and thereby improve their material circumstances. At a time when economic inequality is increasing in many countries, this lack of mobility threatens social cohesion. Given that the social class differences reviewed in my paper have their origins in economic inequality, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is an urgent need for redistributive policies that would reduce the extent of this inequality.

Tony Manstead is Professor of Psychology at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology. His research interests are in emotions, attitudes, and social identity.

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