Why the Wealthy Favor Harsh Punishment — for Criminals and Errant Schoolchildren

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Donald Button (left) talks with other inmates March 14, 2013, at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash. The inmates, who are in solitary confinement, gather for several hours each week under a pilot program to offer them training in several areas. (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)

A growing body of academic research suggests that the wealthy see the world differently than the rest of us.

These studies are more than a matter of passing interest. Last week, the Center for Responsive Politics released a report that for the first time ever, a majority of those representing us in Congress are millionaires. And studies by political scientists Larry Bartels at Princeton and Trinity University’s Thomas Hayes have demonstrated that lawmakers vote to advance the interests of the wealthiest Americans. So in an effective plutocracy, the worldviews of ‘high-status’ individuals translate directly into public policies that affect us all.

Building on earlier research that found that those at the top tend to see themselves as being inherently more deserving than average working people, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and Michael Kraus, a colleague at the University of Illinois, looked at how those views might influence the way they view our criminal justice system in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Moyers & Company spoke with Keltner about the scholars’ findings last week. Below is a transcript of our discussion that’s been edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Holland: When I hear the word ‘essentialism,’ I think of debunked ideas that certain ethnic groups have innate talents or innate shortcomings. The idea that, say, Hispanics are inherently lazy, or Asians are genetically predisposed to be good at math. What is ‘class essentialism’?

Dacher Keltner: The concept of essentialism that you describe has long been with us. It really has no scientific grounding whatsoever, but the belief persists.

Michael Kraus and I got interested in thinking about the social class essentialism that appeared in some of our findings, and it reduces to a simple belief that people who are wealthy or poor are really different biological types. They have different genes; they are categorically almost different kinds of people.

Holland: So it’s the idea that those who have attained a high degree of social status are simply better people, is that fair to say?

Keltner: Yes. I mean, we didn’t necessarily anticipate that in our work, but we keep finding this notion that people from the upper strata of society, as they contemplate their own success and think about why others have less, they arrive at essentialist explanations of their affluence — that it’s due to their better genes, that they have a temperament that’s built for success, that they’re just the kind of people — independent of the neighborhood or society they’re born into — who rise to the top.

Holland: How did you come to this conclusion?

Keltner: We’ve been looking at this in different ways. We asked people from different class backgrounds — people in the upper strata making $150–200,000 a year and then those from the lower strata – to explain why some people are doing well and why wealth is expanding for certain individuals. And in that early study, we found this tendency for upper-class individuals to attribute success to superior traits and special talents — and genius, if you will — and for people from lower economic backgrounds to attribute it to cultural or historical or contextual factors, such as having a good chance to get a solid education.

More recently, we examined it much more directly. We asked people from different class backgrounds to think about the rich and the poor. And then we asked them, “To what extend do you think that these categories, rich and poor, are about people who have different genes, or different temperaments, or different biological makeups?” And again we found this similar pattern, which is that upper class individuals think of class as being based in biology and genes, and you don’t see that belief in people who are less wealthy.

Holland: It makes me think of the late, great Molly Ivins. She used to say that George W. Bush was “born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”

Keltner: That very notion motivated some of this work. When you are born into a life of great opportunity and privilege in American society, where your schools are good and your neighborhood has great parks and there’s good food around, and quality afterschool programs, and all the things that wealthy individuals have preferential access to, you would hope that would factor into their theories of why they succeed — and we’re finding that it’s not so salient in how they view their lives.

Holland: You and Michael Kraus conducted a series of experiments, and in some instances, you manipulated the perceived social status of individuals to make sure that you weren’t confusing correlation and causation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Keltner: A lot of the findings that I’ve just described linking your class background to how you explain success in life and whether you attribute it to essentialist/genetic factors or more historical/contextual factors, are correlational. They’re based on a person’s family income or where they place themselves on a ten-rung ladder in terms of society’s classes, and then that self-assessment correlates with these outcomes.

That opens up all kinds of alternative explanations for our results. So we really wanted to turn to causal experimental evidence, and Michael developed this powerful technique in which you engage people in a social comparison, where you ask them to compare their station in US society to people who are doing really well, like the Bill Gates and Oprah Winfreys. And people end up, in that comparison process, ranking themselves lower. They feel like, “Well, I’m not doing as well as I thought.”

In another group, we get people to enter into more of an upper-class mindset, where they compare themselves to the people who aren’t doing as well — to the homeless family they might encounter on the street or the people who’ve lost jobs — and that thought process lifts up people’s sense of social class and they feel that they’re higher up the ladder than they would otherwise report. And what we find is, once in that mindset of belonging to a higher class, individuals were more likely to endorse more essentialist views of class categories.

Holland: I’m always struck by how different scholars working with different methodologies find complementary results. Your colleague, Paul Piff, found that the wealthy tend to be more likely to have a sense of entitlement than average people. He also found that they were more likely to exhibit narcissistic traits. These all seem to be perfectly complementary.

Keltner: Yeah, Paul Piff’s findings and Michael Kraus’s earlier findings — and studies by Hazel Markus, and Nicole Stephens at Stanford — are all consistent. We take great heart when different scientific approaches converge on a notion or an idea, and this is all converging on this idea that there’s something about wealth and privilege that makes people perhaps a little too self-focused. And they lose sight of the great breaks they get in life, thinking, as you said, that if you’re born on third it’s because you hit a triple.

And also, importantly, we find that when you are born and live in the lower socioeconomic strata, you tend to be a little bit more sophisticated in how you perceive the contextual factors that influence life. You’re more attuned to your context and your neighborhood and the people around you.

Holland: This brings us to what I, at least, find to be the most interesting result of this study. You looked at how class essentialism correlates with people’s views of our criminal justice system.

Keltner: It was one of our deep motivations for doing this work. In psychological approaches to punishment, you can think about many different kinds of punishment or motives for punishment. And one way to parse that is to think about punishment being retributive — that is kind of an ‘eye for an eye’ form of justice, where the punishment matches the severity of the crime and is really about giving people their just desserts — versus a restorative form of punishment, where the idea is to have a punishment that allows people to regain their dignity and, for people who’ve perpetrated crimes, to improve and to get back in touch with their conscience and their standing in society.

What we’ve learned in this study is that if you think that there are just bad people out there, because of their genes, because of their temperament, because of their biological makeup, you won’t have much hope in restorative justice or restorative punishment. You won’t think there’s really any opportunity for them to change.

And what we’ve found is that because they have this belief that the people who aren’t doing well aren’t doing well because of their genes, upper-class individuals — or people put into this upper-class mindset — are more likely to endorse harsher, more retributive forms of punishment. That’s true when thinking about crimes and also kids cheating in schools — all manner of transgressions. I think that’s really worrisome.

And I’m not only worried about our punitive tendencies. I’d also extend this analysis to other policy areas. For example, the idea of devoting resources to those in need, people who are struggling, is a foundational element of a strong state. And our data would suggest that the well-to-do, who are more likely to be in office, won’t have that intuition about directing resources to those in need. I think there are many applications of this work.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Anonymous

    Until they are standing in front of a judge at sentencing…then they want all the leniency they can get.

  • Joan Harris

    What about the Kennedy’s and the Bill Gates of the world? I’ve witnessed a negative bias of people of modest incomes in rural areas against people with more means that left the cities for a more modest simple life like myself. I want our legislators to do the right thing irregardless of their financial statis. Especially for children from poor families. The children represent hope for the future given a chance with preschool and other opportunities. The list goes on….thanks to all the Bill Gates’s of the world.

  • Anonymous

    I’m disappointed the discussion didn’t address the apparent double standard they have with respect to white collar crime. They seem to think a slap on the wrist is appropriate in those cases.

  • Justin King

    Once you’re INSIDE the moat, the police are your “good buddies”.

  • Justin King

    Watch the Max Keiser weekly videos for some hard truth involving the world financial system.

  • Justin King

    They PAY for all the leniency that they can get.

  • Joan Harris

    My kind is a threat to those who are prejudiced and don’t know it.

  • Mark Swantkowski

    I judge [and rate] people by what they do, not by how much money they have…

  • Joan Harris

    Not delving into how the rich have made made their money, I’ll take your word for it until I find out otherwise. My point still stays that no one group of people should be painted with the same brush. Stereotyping breeds prejudice and that is dangerous.

  • Anonymous

    “Somehow not too many people get rich honestly.”
    Basing opinions on populist falsehood is pretty much the definition of stereotyping.

  • David Lambkin

    Aren’t the researchers simply verifying 2 fundamental attribution errors? One is that we all have a strong tendency to attribute our successes to personal traits and our failures to outside forces. The second is that we all tend to attribute others’ failures to personal traits and ignore or downplay outside forces’ effect. These attribution errors are amply demonstrated by this research especially the second one when they shift the less successful groups’ reference to the homeless and the less successful amply replicate the rich groups’ response to them by attributing the homeless groups problems to personality traits and downplay or ignore the impact of outside forces. These fundamental attribution errors are the problem, not the individuals who possess wealth. Because if we became the rich then we would most likely simply mirror the attitudes of the people who are rich now. We need to know that all success and all failure is always a combination of personal traits and outside factors and then act on that knowledge.

  • Anonymous

    your saying that attitude follows wheras it might be the nurtured attitude of supetiority that leads. this might sound like supporting the “positive” attitude and expectations trends, might serm like spprovsl. except for one word….”sociopathy.”

  • Anonymous

    because society bows to accomplishment with the beliefs going back to godless social darwinism in one hand and godly prosperity theology in the other hand. a book “unwusl justice for all notes how poor are punished ehile rich are excused…because convictions would harm careers. wrll, yes. i guess a successful criminsl is still a success in americs. “behind every great fortune, a greater crime.” its not a popular idea here as part of our national character is exceptional defference to msmon. maybe even a hint of butt kisding ( it might rub off and flow into our accounts)

  • Anonymous

    The subjects were asked about how they viewed the successes or failures of others.

  • Anonymous

    bill gates was born with that silver spoon included. daddy’s law firm might be news to you? then there is billy boys less than level rules of engagement plus some big luck. while there is unwarsnted snimus agsinst the rich, its more against the education snd sophustication and freedom that it is associated with. we as a knownothing populist mob, think every idiots opinion is the equsll of rigorous fact.

  • Anonymous

    billy gates’ mindset has permeated his grandiose charity schrmes. hes got good intent. but he has no place for slow steady unremarkable….do-able…projects. consider mslaria erradication. big money throeing trumped simple pragmatic sleeping nets.

  • Anonymous

    we joined an urban to rural exodus. we sided the rursls and despised the yuppie scum who moved next to agriculture…only to complain that cattle smells and cutting hay at 2am was ruining their experience. boo f-ing hoo!

  • Anonymous

    you write well. are you a PRACTICING advocate? hit my pic and lets talk.

  • Anonymous

    was this research focused on USA-based folks? makes me wonder if there’s any difference in how folks from different social strata see things in countries where wealth distribution is relatively more balanced than Gringolandia. anecdotally i see this sort of “social darwinist” (if you will) attitude among folks of lower social strata who claim libertarian-capitalist sort of political ideology. it’s all really interesting to my nerd side. but tbh i saw the title and really did a facepalm. It’s very tiring to think there has to be a study to prove that this kind stuff happens, it seems like common sense to me; that may just be due to my lowly raising tho. who knows, right?

  • Anonymous

    Still doesn’t talent, innate ability, IQ, etc. make a huge difference? If we send all people to college will we produce a society of great innovators? This starts to link with the idea that we are transforming to an information/service based economy–e.g. don’t we need manufacturing/assembly line jobs for some segment of the population? Nature provides a variety of human talent. Shouldn’t society embrace (and nurture) what nature provides?

  • Dude

    These kinds of comments are just sad. You dislike people because they are seemingly “successful” and young
    ? That to me is sad and a waste of energy that could be used more constructively.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting thoughts, it seems that back in the 60’s when any man could support a family on a working man’s wages,workers held their heads high and “average Americans” were world travelers who tipped well and showed a great amount of self esteem.

    Yet as Reagan sold the nation his “supply side – Pig in a poke” and convinced the middle class that the poor were their enemies while at the same time changed our values from “community” and “we are in this together” to “profits trump all”.of the needy were “not of our kind” and since the civil rights legislation had elevated minorities to “our status”, white middle class folks did not realize that their attacks on the programs that served the poor were self inflicted wounds on their own – some are still blind to this.

    So now we are reaping the fruits of decades of right wing ideology: a disappearing middle class, a battered and defeated working class and exploding numbers of the poor and needy – while a self righteous entitled upper class rolls in the dough.

    Sad thing is that it was all done “democratically”.

  • Post-Juggalo

    You should have stayed in the city with your own kind

  • Anonymous

    Your facts are 100% wrong. Bill Gates came from affluence. His mother was on the board of IBM, and his lawyer father made sure he had a great contract from ibm, because IBM saw no future in the pc at the time. He never worked for apple, and never stole apple technology, apple secured the gui operating system from Xerox, steve jobs never built any of his brilliant apple technology he acquired it on the open market. Your facts are 1000% wrong read a book on computer history. Steve jobs came from a poor family but he was absolutely ruthless in hording a majority of the stock during the early years of his company. He cheated many of his developers out of early stock. They were all ruthless in business , Larry Ellison with Oracle as well. That’s how they got so wealthy, they were ruthless, brilliant and and lucky in business, but others created the technology, they capitalized on it, by bringing it to market.