Egocentrism may play an important role in shaping attitudes about welfare recipients

Egocentric judgments about purchases shape attitudes toward welfare recipients, according to new research published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

“We observed that people (ourselves included) often comment on or even judge others for their purchases, even though a) they don’t affect us, and b) they simply reflect differences in personal tastes and differences in personal value between people, as opposed to judgments based on someone making an ‘objectively’ worse purchase,” said study author Steven Shepherd, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University.

“We wanted to understand this process better and also investigate it in an impactful domain like judging welfare recipients and welfare policy attitudes.”

The study of 1,664 Americans found that welfare recipients were more likely to be viewed as irresponsible and impulsive when they purchased items that the participants did not themselves value. The study controlled for factors such as political orientation, past welfare experience, income, and general attitudes about welfare.

However, this negative stereotyping was not observed when the welfare recipient was replaced with a middle-class individual who purchased items that the participants did not value — suggesting the effect is unique to those who receive public assistance.

The researchers also found that participants were more likely to support policies that restricted welfare funds being used for purchases that the participant does not value.

“Decisions and purchases that initially do not make sense to us often are actually rational or understandable if we really think about the situation that others are in. For example, people judge SNAP recipients for not buying healthy food, without thinking that they may not have any healthy food options nearby (e.g. they live in a food dessert, do not have reliable access to transportation, etc.),” Shepherd told PsyPost.

“It is worth introspecting on our own judgments of others, and really try to understand the situation they are in and not jump to making judgments of people’s character. This is particularly true of people living in poverty and receiving social assistance.”

“We tend to see the use of social assistance as a chronic thing when in fact it is a temporary state for most people,” Shepherd continued. “As an example, when we analyzed people’s comments about a proposal that would allow SNAP funds to be used to buy pet food, not only did we find that non pet-owners were more likely to have a negative attitude toward this proposal, but also that they would often say things like ‘if you can’t afford to feed yourself you shouldn’t own a pet!’ without first considering that perhaps they had the pet before falling on hard times.”

The researchers were able to diminish the effect by providing the participants with information that indicated the welfare recipient was responsible with their money.

“We were able to reduce people’s bias by giving immediately relevant information about the welfare recipient who was to be rated by the participants in our study, and while we make suggestions regarding how an understanding of egocentrism may help reduce bias, such interventions would have to be tested,” Shepherd explained.

“We also think there are other domains that this could be investigated in; most immediately relevant is how it is overwhelmingly men making decisions for women regarding reproductive rights. This too is a situation where a failure to understand the situation of others could lead to egocentric judgments.”

The study, “The Effect of Egocentric Taste Judgments on Stereotyping of Welfare Recipients and Attitudes Toward Welfare Policy“, was authored by Steven Shepherd and Troy Campbell.