Psychology Magazine

Social Darwinism Isn't Dead - the Rich Really Do Think Their Different...

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

An engaging piece by Matthew Hutson in Slate points to work by Kraus and Keltner. Some clips:

...In 2012 the top 0.01 percent of households earned an average of $10.25 million, while the mean household income for the country overall was $51,000. Are top earners 200 times as smart as the rest of the field? Doubtful. Do they have the capacity to work 200 times more hours in the week? Even more doubtful.
..say you’re in that top 0.01 percent—or even the top 50 percent. Would you want to admit happenstance as a benefactor? Wouldn’t you rather believe that you earned your wealth, that you truly deserve it? Wouldn’t you like to think that any resources you inherited are rightfully yours, as the descendant of fundamentally exceptional people? .. you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.
Kraus and Keltner's work explores "social class essentialism" - the belief that surface differences can be explained by differences in fundamental identities. Studies have shown that
...people hold essentialist beliefs about generally biological categories such as gender, race, and sexuality, as well as about more cultural ones such as nationality, religion, and political orientation. Essentialism leads to stereotyping, prejudice, and a disinclination to mingle with outsiders.
Kraus and Keltner wanted to know if we see social class as an essential category. They found:
...that higher social class was associated with greater social class essentialism. This pattern remained even after controlling for political orientation as well as objective measures of a participant’s income and education level, indicating that it’s one’s sense of being above or below others, not one’s actual resources, that drives the result...the higher people perceived their social class to be, the more strongly they endorsed just-world beliefs (i.e. that the world is a fair place), and that this difference explained their increased social class essentialism: Apparently if you feel that you’re doing well, you want to believe success comes to those who deserve it, and therefore those of lower status must not deserve it.
There is a grain to truth to social class essentialism; the few studies on the subject estimate that income, educational attainment, and occupational status are perhaps at least 10 percent genetic (and maybe much more). ..But that’s a far cry from saying “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining his or her genes.” Such a statement ignores the role of wealth inheritance, the social connections one shares with one’s parents, or the educational opportunities family money can buy—not to mention strokes of good or bad luck (that are not tied to karma).
Social class essentialism is basically inciting social Darwinism. This distortion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, in one interpretation, is the belief that only the fit survive and thrive—and, further, that this process should be accepted or even accelerated by public policy...It might also entail belief in survival of the fittest as a desired end, given the results linking it to reduced support for restorative interventions... It’s an example of the logical fallacy known as the “appeal to nature”—what is natural is good. (If that were true, technology and medicine would be moral abominations.)

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