Social Class, Attitudes, and The Tendency Toward Homeostasis

When you are born into a higher social class, you probably do have access to more opportunities than others. But, says new research from the University of Virginia, you also probably think you are more deserving of those opportunities.

“Social class shapes the attitudes that people hold about their abilities and that, in turn, has important implications for how class hierarchies perpetuate from one generation to the next,” explains Peter Belmi, PhD, of the University of Virginia and lead author of the study (Belmi et al, 2019).

Conducting a series of four investigations, Belmi and his team looked at the connection between social class and overconfidence and, importantly, how that might affect others’ perceptions of a person’s competence.

The first study included more than 150,000 small business owners in Mexico who were applying for loans. As part of the application process, the researchers obtained information about the applicants’ income, education level, and perceived standing in society. Applicants were also required to complete a psychological assessment that included a flashcard game where they were shown an image that goes away after they press a key and is replaced by a second image. They were then asked to determine if the second image matches the first. After completing 20 trials, they were asked the question: How did they believe they performed in comparison with others on a scale of 1 to 100?

Consistently, people with more education, more income, and a higher perceived social class had an exaggerated belief that they would perform better than others, compared with their lower-class counterparts – which didn’t always correlate with their actual scores (Belmi et al., 2019).

In two other studies with more than 1,400 online participants, Belmi and his team found a similar association between social class and overconfidence. Using a trivia test as a measure, those from a higher social class indicated that they did better than others; and again, when the researchers examined actual performance, it was not the case (Belmi et al., 2019).

In the last study, 236 undergraduate students had to answer a 15-item trivia quiz and predict how they fared compared with others. They also had to rate their social class, their families’ income and their mothers’ and fathers’ education levels. Then, a week later, the students were brought back to the lab for a videotaped mock hiring interview. Asking more than 900 judges, recruited online, to watch the videos and rate their impression of the applicant’s competence, the researchers found that, once again, students from a higher social class tended to be more overconfident. And they also discovered that this overconfidence was misinterpreted by the judges who watched their videos as greater competence (Belmi et al., 2019).

“Individuals with relatively high social class were more overconfident, which in turn was associated with being perceived as more competent and ultimately more hirable, even though, on average, they were no better at the trivia test than their lower-class counterparts,” explains Belmi (Belmi et al., 2019).

These findings challenge what many know as the Lake Wobegon Effect – where everybody thinks they are better than average – and point to the effects of class socialization.

Belmi explains, “In the middle class, people are socialized to differentiate themselves from others, to express what they think and feel and to confidently express their ideas and opinions, even when they lack accurate knowledge. By contrast, working-class people are socialized to embrace the values of humility, authenticity and knowing your place in the hierarchy,” (Belmi et al., 2019).

According to Belmi and his team, this also explains why class-based hierarchies continue to persist generation after generation. One step in the right direction might simply be to separate our impressions of confidence with evidence of ability, and simply examine ability. Another step might be to examine what we can learn from adversity.

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