Social status isn’t just about the cars we drive, the money we
make or the schools we attend — it’s also about how we feel,
think and act, psychology researchers say.
By Tori DeAngelis
University of California, Irvine, professor Paul Piff, PhD, starts his courses on class differences by asking students about their consumer habits: Do they shop at
J.C. Penney or Neiman Marcus? What kind of car do they drive,
if they drive at all? What is their preferred breakfast, a fruit
smoothie from Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donut?
“As people reconstruct their days, it’s clear that in every
single decision they make, class is an essential feature,” says Piff.
The implications are larger than breakfast choice, he adds.
“Class affects whether someone is going to be accepted into a
particular kind of school, their likelihood of succeeding in that
school, the kinds of jobs they have access to, the kinds of friends
they make” — in essence, the degree of status, power and perks
people enjoy or lack in their daily lives.
But until the last decade or so, the concept of class has
generally eluded psychological inquiry. While sociologists and
epidemiologists have examined its effects in broad domains
such as health outcomes and mortality, few researchers have
explored how we process class internally and psychologically.
Yet several factors make the psychology of class an
increasingly important topic to study, some researchers say.
One is the widening gulf between rich and poor, and the
potentially negative effects this gap has in areas including
health, well-being, self-image, relationships, stereotyping
Studying the psychology of class is
also important because it puts a
contextual spin on what
has largely been an
view of psychological
Michael Kraus, PhD,
who studies class at
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It suggests
that the contexts we grow up in and are socialized in are an