yes, the wealthy really think they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps

Researchers found that not only do those with money and power think they’re smarter, they’re likely to exaggerate their upward mobility.
wealthy man smoking cigar
Photo illustration by Tim Mossholder

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. John James Moneybags was born in a dark alley, never to know his parents. He learned to read by digging through the trash for newspapers to recycle so he could afford a few crumbs of bread every other day. By eight years old he shoveled manure and swept chimneys while moonlighting as an attraction at the local freakshow. Eventually, he managed to survive a cage deathmatch to get hired for a temp mailroom job at the Monopoly Corporation. Working 22 hours a day, he rose through the ranks to become the Executive Vice President of Tactical Nuclear Finance, and eventually, a millionaire who writes books and gives motivational speeches for five figure fees. And if he can do it, you can too!

Rags to riches stories with a heavy emphasis on struggle porn and hustle culture permeated the Anglophone world since Victorian times thanks to a deeply flawed belief that poverty and blight was caused by nothing else than laziness or genetic inferiority. Unfortunately, this mythology is still very much with us, sabotaging our responses to catastrophically growing income inequality, globalization, and automation by insisting that anyone left behind by global forces in which they have little say probably deserves it. So, rather than tackle systemic problems created by bigotry, greed, and shortsightedness, we’re assaulted by near mythical tales of people going from street urchin to billionaire concluded with a loud “hint hint you lazy bastards.”

Now, this is where a lot of pundits would say that those better off than the majority of the public know these stories are often wildly exaggerated and created to keep the masses docile so they don’t turn on their “betters” in frustration and rage. But they would be wrong. According to new studies on the subject, these motivational myths may well be self-created because when we get money and power, we not only tend to become less empathetic, we also tend to think that we’re smarter and more deserving of our newfound authority and wealth even if it’s glaringly obvious that it was the result of a random process. Even worse, we’ll also start believing that our views are objectively true and those who disagree are just jealous, stupid, and biased.

Furthermore, in order to fit into traditional views of boundless social mobility, those in the middle class and well-off socioeconomic strata may present themselves as coming from “working class roots” and describe their families as being worse off than they really were. Over the centuries, it was believed that those with wealth and power must have attained it through divine grace and must therefore be better people, and the feudal aristocrats in question acted accordingly. Today we’re effectively doing the same thing by substituting “the market” and “meritocracy” for a divine entity, injecting some egalitarian ideals and doing away with feudal institutions, and the wealthy once again act as is expected of them.

Understanding why the people in the top socioeconomic quintile are getting drunk off their own spiked Kool-Aid isn’t just a matter of social psychology. It has serious real world implications for tens of millions. Because they often end up in positions to draft policy and pass laws, falling for their own myths can mean misery and woe as disciples of the secular prosperity gospel adopted and justified measures that exacerbated inequality and poverty, such as trickle down economics and cutting social services through austerity in financial crises despite these approaches being shown as fatally flawed for years. But abandoning these policies would mean abandoning the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative, so we’re stuck with them.

Yet, it’s not that benefitting from a jump start in life by being born into a middle class or well-off family is a bad thing or should be seen as some sort of character flaw. People don’t choose their parents, after all. We also don’t need to minimize the hard work they’ll have to do in their lives to create their own wealth since more than two thirds of wealth is created rather than inherited. In fact, some well-off families place so many expectations on their kids that the results were tragic in a number of highly publicized cases. Not having to worry about food and having access to the best schools is great, but wealth is not a panacea that guarantees success. (Although it gives a few people a glass floor, preventing them from consequences of failure.)

Most importantly, by acknowledging that most millionaires got the education, lucky breaks, and opportunities which got them where they are, that very few manage to achieve the same feat when born into poverty, and that many more have to navigate active and systemic roadblocks in their lives and careers, we can focus on creating policies that provide meaningful ways for those less fortunate at birth to succeed later in life. We certainly won’t get equal outcomes, but we can strive for providing equal opportunity instead of pretending that we already have it and anyone can do anything according to the exaggerated life stories and scornful glances of the well-to-do ready to dismiss anyone who doubts their views as an ignorant societal parasite.

See: Belmi, Peter, Neale, Margaret. (2019) The social advantage of miscalibrated individuals: the relationship between social class and overconfidence and its implications for class-based inequality, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000187

Brown-Iannuzzi, L. J., et al. (2020) A privileged point of view: effects of subjective socioeconomic status on naïve realism and political division, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, DOI: 10.1177/0146167220921043

Friedman, Sam, et al. (2021) Deflecting privilege: class identity and the intergenerational self, DOI: 10.1177/0038038520982225

# science // research / social psychology / wealth

  Show Comments