How social class is reflected in our Psychology

Matthew Warren digests the research.

26 May 2022

Psychologists have increasingly come to recognise the role that social and cultural factors play in shaping how we think and behave. While some human experiences may be universal, research has shown that the society we come from can have a profound influence on everything from our perception of music to the way we interpret emotions

There has been less of a focus on how social class is reflected in our psychology. And yet, a growing number of studies finds that much like our culture, our class background also influences our thoughts and behaviour. What’s more, research suggests that in a society where middle class norms and ways of thinking are prioritised, these differences can end up further disadvantaging individuals from lower-class backgrounds.

Class: A form of culture?

In some ways, class is a form of culture: people from different class backgrounds grow up in environments with particular norms and values, and this shapes their behaviour and sense of identity. For instance, note Michael W. Kraus and colleagues in their 2019 book chapter Social class as culture, for working class individuals the ‘self’ tends to be tied more to others, and there is an emphasis on strong social bonds. In contrast, middle class individuals tend to define themselves as separate from others and more focused on their own uniqueness. Young children are taught these identities from early on, the researchers write: middle class parents are more likely than working class parents to encourage their kids to speak up at school, for instance, or choose their own hobbies.

Other work emphasises the direct role played by disparities in resources such as wealth or education. Being from a higher social class, with more material resources, can buffer against potential threats such as job loss, and opens up more opportunities. This gives people from these backgrounds a greater sense of control and agency. By contrast, people from lower social classes often experience less of a sense of control, and a stronger feeling that external factors constrain their lives. Their greater emphasis on interpersonal relationships may partly be a means to deal with this ‘threatening’ environment.

A related concept is subjective social class. This concerns how people see their own social rank in relation to others in society, and is associated with – but also distinct from – objective measures like education and wealth. Again, subjective class is associated with differences in identity and social connection, and low subjective social status has particularly been linked to stress and worse health (see Emma Young’s feature in this issue).

How class influences everyday thoughts and behaviours

Our ways of viewing the self and the wider of world are of course influenced by all kinds of other individual differences too, and no social class is a homogenous group of people. Nevertheless, in the past couple of decades studies have shown that these overall class-based differences do manifest in our day-to-day psychological processes and behaviours. 

Social class can affect how we perceive our own abilities. Compared to people from a relatively low social class, those of a higher social class tend to have a more favourable view of themselves, for instance, showing higher self-esteem and a greater degree of narcissism. And, crucially, a 2019 study suggests that this comes down to overconfidence.

Peter Belmi from The University of Virginia and colleagues asked more than 150,000 small business owners in Mexico to complete a task that involved viewing a sequence of images and indicating whether or not they matched; participants then rated how well they thought they performed on this task compared to others. By comparing participants’ actual scores on the task with ratings of their own beliefs about their performance, the researchers calculated a measure of how (over)confident participants were.

The team found that participants who were of a relatively high social class were more overconfident than those of a relatively low social class. That is, these people tended to have a stronger degree of confidence in their performance that was not reflected in their actual performance. Further online studies with American participants suggested that this overconfidence was partly motivated by this group’s desire to maintain a high social status.

Class also appears to influence some emotional processes. Research from 2010 led by Kraus found that lower-class individuals were better at recognising the emotions of facial expressions presented in photos, as well as the spontaneous emotions of another participant taking part in a mock interview. In a further study, the team actually made participants feel of higher or lower rank, by asking them to compare themselves to people at the very bottom or top of the socioeconomic ladder. Those made to feel of low rank were again better at recognising emotions than those made to feel of high rank.

The researchers say that lower-class individuals are better at recognising others’ emotions – an ability know as ‘empathic accuracy’ – because of their tendency to focus more on the external environment and social context, compared to the more inward-looking focus of higher-class individuals. The fact that making people feel low or high rank influences this ability lends support to the idea that class has a causal effect.

Another series of studies in PNAS found that higher-class individuals behave more unethically than people from lower-class backgrounds. Paul Piff from UC Berkeley and colleagues found that upper-class individuals more frequently cut off other cars and pedestrians while driving, for instance, and were more likely to say that they would engage in behaviours like plagiarism or pirating software. The team points to several factors that could explain these differences, including higher class individuals’ feelings of independence and entitlement, lack of concern for how others perceive them, and financial means with which to deal with consequences of their behaviour. 

On the flip side, a number of studies have found that lower-class individuals behave more pro-socially, offering more help and donating more money to others in need. In a 2017 review, Piff and Angela Robinson suggest that this is an adaptive strategy that helps lower-class individuals cope with threat and develop strong social networks .

More controversially, being from a lower class has also been linked to greater prejudice against ethnic minorities and immigrants. But as Antony Manstead from Cardiff University makes clear in a 2018 review, there are lots of nuances here. Research suggests that people from a lower socioeconomic background show negative attitudes towards immigrants because of their own precarious economic situation: immigrants themselves are generally of lower social status, and are more likely to be competing for jobs and housing with people from lower-class backgrounds. When immigrants are portrayed as highly educated, or when there is a high degree of economic instability, then higher-class individuals also show prejudice.

Understanding cultural context

There are plenty more examples of how class can influence psychological processes. But there’s an important caveat: the vast majority of this work has been carried out in Western countries, particularly the United States, so the findings may not necessarily apply elsewhere. As Yuri Miyamoto from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues note in a 2018 paper, cultural traditions likely shape the way in which class influences our thoughts and behaviours. For example, Western cultures tend to emphasise the needs and development of the individual, and so it’s not surprising that people who hold high status in society are more focused on the self. But would the same be true in a more collectivistic culture?

In a series of studies, the team used data from surveys from the United States and Japan, which included both objective and subjective measures of socioeconomic status. Participants were also asked questions tapping into ‘self-orientation’ (e.g. how much they strived to achieve personal goals) and ‘other-orientation’ (e.g. how much support they gave to family and friends).

The team found that people who scored higher on the various measures of socioeconomic status tended to have a greater self-orientation, regardless of which country they were from. But in Japan, higher socioeconomic status was also associated with a greater other-orientation, while in the US there was a much weaker, or in some cases negative, link between the two variables. Similar patterns were found when comparing other Western and East Asian cultures too.

More work is needed to compare other countries, as well as different racial or ethnic groups within countries (the authors note that most of the US respondents were White, for instance). But still, the authors write, the work shows ‘the importance of considering psychological correlates of social hierarchy within a cultural context’. 

Implications of class-based differences

Cultural considerations notwithstanding, why do class-based differences in the way we think and behave matter? For one, they may end up reinforcing existing class-based inequalities. Take the paper on overconfidence, for instance. The researchers found that the (unjustified) sense of confidence displayed by people from a relatively high social class led to them being seen as more competent in a mock interview. As the team concludes: ‘Our findings suggest that class-based inequality may also reproduce, in part, because class contexts can imbue advantaged individuals with an exaggerated belief that they are better than others, and outside observers may conflate this miscalibrated confidence with evidence of competence.’

Class-based differences in social norms and self-concepts can also reinforce inequalities, particularly in areas which have traditionally been informed by middle class ways of thinking. Take universities, for instance, which have a strong focus on independence. This may suit people from middle class families, but can result in a culture clash for those from working class backgrounds, who tend to place more value on interdependent norms. As a result, working class students may feel that they don’t fit in at university, or choose not to attend in the first place. 

This same ‘cultural mismatch’ likely exists in other workplaces dominated by middle-class values, writes Manstead in his 2018 paper. This ‘mak[es] 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,’ he concludes. 

These differences also raise questions about the generalisability of psychology research. It’s well-known that psychology has a ‘WEIRD’ problem, focusing largely on Western, Educated populations who come from Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies. Psychologists increasingly acknowledge the importance of including participants from non-Western countries and racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. But it seems likely that people from working class backgrounds are also underrepresented in research. 

It’s hard to tell how much of a problem this might be, because studies hardly ever report measures of class such as socioeconomic status. For instance, a 2018 PNAS study led by Mostafa Salari Rad found an overwhelming lack of demographic information in papers published in a prominent psychology journal. Most studies reported participants’ gender, but less than a quarter reported on their ethnicity or race – and socioeconomic status was barely ever mentioned. There was usually little acknowledgement in the text about the cultural context in which the research was conducted. 

Given that social class is related to differences in values, ways of thinking, and behaviour, it’s vital that samples include participants from diverse class backgrounds. How do we know that findings based on studies of undergraduates – who are likely to be disproportionately middle class – apply to people from other social classes? If psychology is going to help combat class-based inequalities, it needs to ensure that people from different classes are represented in research in the first place.

- Matthew Warren is editor of our Research Digest.

Illustration: Eliza Southwood