By Alex Fradera
Social class may seem different today than in the early 20th Century. Former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s comment in 1997 that “we are all middle class now” had a ring of truth, given that most people in the West have access to what once were luxuries, such as running water, in-house entertainment, and eye-catching brands. But this is something of an illusion, according to Cardiff University’s Antony Manstead, who shows in the British Journal of Social Psychology (open access) how class is still written into our psychology, and the implications this has for how we behave and our wellbeing.
First, Manstead presents evidence that shows socio-economic status (based on income and educational attainment – not identical with class, but an overlapping concept that’s used in much of the relevant research) remains as important to people’s identity as factors like gender or ethnicity. This is truer for wealthier people than lower earners suggesting some eroding of a positive working-class identity.
Apart from obvious class markers like clothing, our behaviour is also still a giveaway: lab studies show that working-class people are more likely to employ eye-contact, laughter and head nods when interacting with others, compared to a more disengaged non-verbal style from the middle/upper classes. And class can be read at greater than chance levels even from stimuli as basic as Facebook photographs or seven words of speech. So we feel a certain class, and others can detect that class fairly easily.
What are the psychological consequences of this awareness of social class? Manstead describes how working class people are more likely to consider the world as a mass of forces and risks to contend with and accommodate, which manifests in various ways including their measurably higher levels of vigilance and a heightened threat detection system. This makes sense if you lack some of the resources (e.g. rich parents) that can buffer you from catastrophe, but may also reflect limiting beliefs. Meanwhile, middle/upper-class people are more motivated by internal states and personal goals. They are more solipsistic, on average: the issue is how they should shape the world, not how it pushes back on them. This is indicated by a higher sense of perceived control, and more confidence that good things happen to people due to their choices.
For working class people, this approach to the world has personal downstream consequences, including a higher degree of fatalism towards serious life outcomes, such as contracting HIV. These attitudes may also contribute to greater illness susceptibility: one study found that people exposed to a cold or flu virus and held in quarantine were more likely to become ill if they considered themselves as a lower status social class, even while controlling for their actual class and levels of wealth.
Meanwhile, the costs of the middle and upper-class approach seem to be externalised on the society at large. Put bluntly, the research that Manstead amasses suggests that those with of a higher socioeconomic class are less empathic, have more favourable attitudes towards greed, and are more likely to lie in negotiations. Merely thinking about yourself as higher up the status ladder leads to more selfishness. One can see how a solipsistic view could lead to these attitudes. In contrast, the contextual, real-world focus of lower-class people leads to empathy and a greater ability to see how external events may be shaping the emotions of other people. In addition, they have a greater degree of interdependent relationships and higher levels of social engagement.
One would think social mobility might bridge this psychological gap between the classes, sliding more socially-minded people into positions of influence. Higher education is meant to be one of the engines of social mobility, but people from lower social classes are more likely to report feeling like a fish out of water at university, or to perceive the opportunities available to them as second-rate. Although it ought to be possible to address these anxieties about the unfamiliar, research suggests that the culture of universities may not be designed with the working classes in mind. University deans and administrators asked to list qualities of their culture tended to endorse words more about independence – the natural state of the solipsistic upper-class person, charting their course into the future – than interdependence, which tends to be a particular priority for first-generation university goers, looking to give back to their community. Manstead notes that these same cultural factors are also likely to be present in many workforces and professions.
So “the system” has a psychological component that helps maintain the status quo. Yet there is an appetite for change: in surveys of nationally representative samples, including the wealthy, people repeatedly express a preference for a more equal society. There is even some evidence that greater equality can flip some of the negative trends described about the middle and upper class, leading them to be more, rather than less generous in some economic tasks (perhaps because they feel less entitlement and sense of threat in a more equal society). And the good news is that studies show that giving people an accurate picture of their socioeconomic standing, or telling them that inequality is rising, leads them to being more receptive to change.