12/05/2013 12:59 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2014

The Rich And Educated Believe Wealth Correlates With Virtue, Says Study

A study of social class -- defined by annual income and by education-level -- finds that "Social class rank was positively associated with essentialist beliefs [beliefs that genetics is more important than environment in explaining social class]. ... Social class rank was also positively associated with both belief in a just world ... and meritocracy beliefs, ... suggesting that upper-class ... individuals are more likely to believe that society is fair and just than are their lower-class rank counterparts."

This study, "Social Class Rank, Essentialism, and Punitive Judgment," was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and was performed by Michael W. Kraus and Dacher Keltner, two leading social scientists, whose investigations of the moralities that are applied respectively by the rich and by the poor, are contributing importantly to our understanding of society, of politics, of law, and of economics.

This research found that "Upper-class ... individuals were more likely to endorse beliefs that social class is an inherent, stable, and biologically determined social category relative to their lower-class ... counterparts. Moreover, this pattern emerged after accounting for both political attitudes and material resource measures of social class. ... Beliefs that society is fair and just explained the tendency among upper-class ... individuals to endorse essentialist [biological] beliefs about social class." Thus: the richer and more educated a person was, the more that he thought the world is just, and the more he attributed his being upper-class to his supposed inborn superiority, rather than to the circumstance of his having been born from rich parents who possessed the money to send him to college and perhaps to an expensive university.

Rich and educated people were more supportive of punishment as a means of retribution; poor and uneducated people were more supportive of punishment as a means of reforming the criminal and of (via fines, etc.) restoring to the victims what they had lost from the crime. "Moreover, relationships among social class rank, essentialist beliefs, and punitive judgments could not be accounted for by measures of individuals' material resources or political orientation." In other words: even "liberal" rich tend to be more favorable to retribution than are "liberal" poor.

In summary: "Upper-class ... individuals would be more likely to endorse essentialist lay theories of social class categories (i.e., that social class is founded in genetically based, biological differences) than would lower-class ... individuals and ... these beliefs would decrease support for restorative justice -- which seeks to rehabilitate offenders, rather than punish unlawful action."

The consequences, for example, for jury-selection are clear: A jurist who is upper-class will probably be prejudiced in favor of upper-class defendants, especially if that defendant is even higher class than that juror; but a jurist who is lower-class will be less likely to be prejudiced at all, and will be more likely to be skeptical not only of the defense, but also of the prosecution, and of the very system of justice itself. In other words: upper-class individuals are usually authoritarians, and they tend to believe that people below themselves in the social order are morally inferior; and, so, a defense attorney will do well to admit as a juror an upper-class person if his defendant is upper-class (especially if the defendant is of an even higher class than that prospective juror), but, otherwise, to admit as a juror a lower-class person, since lower-class persons will be less likely to evaluate a defendant by his class, than an upper-class person will.

These same two researchers, plus Paul K. Piff, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Michelle L Rheinschmidt, also headlined in the July 2012 Psychological Review, "Social Class, Solipsism, and Contextualism: How the Rich Are Different From the Poor," and they reported that, "Lower-income participants were more likely to endorse contextual explanations for individual wealth and poverty (e.g., political influence, discrimination), whereas upper-income participants were more likely to endorse dispositional explanations (e.g., hard work, effort)." (After all, the poor knew: lots of extremely hard-working people are poor.) Furthermore, these researchers found that there was an "advantage lower-class individuals enjoy over the upper class in reading the emotions of others." Consequently, it's easier to deceive an upper-class person, whereas a lower-class juror will likelier read a witness's true feelings.

Those findings thus suggest that lower-class persons are likelier to render true opinions as jurors, and that upper-class persons are likelier to render false opinions.

A study by M. Catherine Miller in The Journal of American History, December 2001, was titled, "Finding 'the More Satisfactory Type of Jurymen': Class and the Construction of Federal Juries, 1926-1954," and Miller described how federal policy during that period focused specifically on finding jurors who were thought to be superior enough to be able to judge others. Perhaps in light of recent findings by social scientists, the truly superior defense attorneys will recognize that upper-class people are actually the least likely to render accurate verdicts, and these lawyers, to the extent that they want the truth to come out in court, will instead be aiming to find jurors who are "inferior" enough to be likely to be able to render true verdicts.


Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They're Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST'S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.

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