The rags-to-riches story is such an enduring part of American identity that it somehow feels unpatriotic to doubt it. Consider celebrities like Dolly Parton, Ray Charles or Arnold Schwarzenegger—to name just a few—who grew up poor and succeeded through outsize talent and sheer grit. Those who were born rich, however, don’t get the same respect. In a 2012 Pew Research Survey, just 27% of respondents said they admired the rich, but when a follow-up question asked whether they admired those who had earned their wealth, 88% agreed.
This gap is explored in a recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The lead author, Hyunjin Koo, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Irvine, explained why she was drawn to investigating the nuances of the American Dream: “People seem to really like and admire those who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and expect them to care about the poor and about social welfare,” she wrote in an email.
Ms. Koo wondered whether people who started out at the bottom and achieved high status would support public policies to assist other strivers like themselves. Or, having successfully climbed the socioeconomic ladder, would they perceive upward social mobility as less difficult? “If I did it, why can’t they do it?” Ms. Koo asked rhetorically.
The research team, which included psychology professors Paul Piff at U.C. Irvine and Azim Shariff at the University of British Columbia, began with two studies designed to assess Americans’ attitudes to the rich. Six hundred randomly selected adults were asked to rate two groups: the “born rich,” who had inherited their wealth, and the “became rich,” who had earned it. Which group would be more likely to attribute poverty to external circumstances, for example, or feel empathy toward the poor?
The results showed that people considered the “became rich” more likable and also expected them to be more supportive of the less fortunate. A second set of studies, however, found that these attitudes aren’t in line with reality. This time the research group recruited 1,000 people whose earnings were in America’s top quintile, or more than $142,500 a year. The researchers then sorted this sample into two camps, the “born rich” and the “became rich,” by parsing their financial histories on a questionnaire.
Both groups were then asked to rate themselves on statements like “I demand the best because I’m worth it,” “I sometimes feel guilty about how much money I have compared to others,” and “In the U.S., it is difficult to improve one’s socioeconomic conditions.” In tabulating their answers, the researchers discovered that people who inherited their wealth were more likely to sympathize with those living in poverty and also more likely to support policies that would give the poor a leg up.
It’s the reverse of what one might expect. “People assume that those who had to climb the ladder better understand the struggle and therefore will be more sympathetic to the poor. Maybe they do understand, but the conclusion they come to is that it’s actually less of a struggle and thus less sympathy is in order,” said Prof. Shariff.