Study finds upper-class people attribute achievements to hard work when faced with evidence of class privilege

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that upper middle- to upper-class people tend to be unaware of their class privilege. When shown evidence of said privilege, they were more likely to provide merit-based excuses focused on personal struggle and hard work.

“In short, social class provides privilege: those at the upper end of the income and education distributions garner unearned advantages, based on their class status alone,” explained L. Taylor Phillips, Assistant Professor at NYU and coauthor Brian S. Lowery.

A series of experiments recruited hundreds of adult U.S. citizens from an elite West Coast university whose income classified them as upper middle- or upper-class. One group of participants read statements on either general inequity or class privilege’s connection to greater educational opportunities. Afterwards, participants answered questions that measured their personal hardships in life. In addition, a separate group read about unearned advantages from people who make high incomes.

Researchers found people who read about class privilege reported more life hardships than people who read about general inequity. When reading about the top 10% of income earners having unearned advantages in life, people who believed they were part of that group reported working harder at their job than those who did not.

To expand on the findings, the second half of the study investigated the relation between personal hardships and class privilege. Another group of participants were given information on class privilege or general inequality and asked to answer questionnaires on personal merit and life hardship.

The results found that exposing class privilege threatened personal merit–the feeling of accomplishment with no outside assistance–which could explain why participants reported greater life hardships when they had low personal merit. On another note, when people were not allowed to cite life hardships, people who read about class privilege claimed they spent more effort on difficult tasks.

Overall, the authors suggest that evidence of class privilege threatens a person’s sense of personal merit, which leads to rationalizing success through the perseverance of difficult tasks and hardships. “We find that even in response to direct evidence of [class privilege], the ideology of meritocracy motivates people to claim hardship, potentially blinding themselves and others to the privileges of class.” concluded the authors. “In this way, people may legitimize social class inequity as mere inequality: they address the discomfort associated with naked privilege, by cloaking it with the fig leaf of hardship.”

The study, “I ain’t no fortunate one: On the motivated denial of class privilege”, was authored by L. Taylor Phillips and Brian S. Lowery.