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Your Path to Riches Could Shape Your Attitude to the Poor


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TUESDAY, June 28, 2022 – How sympathetic a rich person feels toward those of lesser means may be influenced by whether they were born rich or became rich during their lifetime.

And not in the way you might expect: New research found that those who started out poor were less likely to be sympathetic to those who remained poor.

“In the United States, we find that people expect those who became rich to be more sympathetic toward the poor and social welfare than those who were born rich,” said study author Hyunjin Koo of the University of California, Irvine. “However, the ‘Became Rich’ perceive improving one’s socioeconomic conditions as less difficult relative to the ‘Born Rich,’ which predicts less sympathetic attitudes toward the poor and redistribution.”

In a survey of 736 people in the United States, researchers found that people viewed those who became rich more positively than those who were born rich. They also expected that those who became rich would be more supportive of the poor and social welfare.

But later surveys of more than 1,000 relatively wealthy individuals in the United States — including one where annual incomes topped $80,000 and another with annual incomes over $142,000 — the research team found that those who became rich thought it was easier to improve one’s socioeconomic status than people who were born rich. This assumption reduced sympathetic attitudes toward the poor, the authors said.

“There are all sorts of stories and cultural narratives about the rich, what they’re like and how they behave. Our findings suggest that not all rich people may be the same,” Koo said. “What seems to make a difference is how they got rich.”

The researchers then did a study that used a thought experiment to simulate the experience of upward mobility. Participants in the upwardly mobile group did think it was easier to get ahead. This led to reduced sympathy toward those struggling to move up.

More research is needed, Koo said, to conclude that upward mobility changes how someone thinks. He also noted that there are likely many wealthy people who do not match the patterns and are sympathetic toward the poor and social welfare.

Koo said, however, that people should reconsider the cultural narratives that exist today.

“Just because someone has been in your shoes, doesn’t necessarily mean they care about you,” Koo said. “Overcoming a certain difficulty may, by its very nature, cause people to be less sympathetic toward those experiencing that same difficulty, because they overcame it.”

The findings were published June 27 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.


  • Social Psychological and Personality Science, news release, June 27, 2022

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