Eyeing the Joneses

Kevin Lewis

May 22, 2020

Social Class Predicts Emotion Perception and Perspective-Taking Performance in Adults
Pia Dietze & Eric Knowles
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming


“Theory of Mind” (ToM; people’s ability to infer and use information about others’ mental states) varies across cultures. In four studies (N = 881), including two preregistered replications, we show that social class predicts performance on ToM tasks. In Studies 1A and 1B, we provide new evidence for a relationship between social class and emotion perception: Higher-class individuals performed more poorly than their lower-class counterparts on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which has participants infer the emotional states of targets from images of their eyes. In Studies 2A and 2B, we provide the first evidence that social class predicts visual perspective taking: Higher-class individuals made more errors than lower-class individuals in the Director Task, which requires participants to assume the visual perspective of another person. Potential mechanisms linking social class to performance in different ToM domains, as well as implications for deficiency-centered perspectives on low social class, are discussed.

Achievement is not class-neutral: Working together benefits people from working-class contexts
Andrea Dittmann, Nicole Stephens & Sarah Townsend
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming


Previous research has documented that people from working-class contexts have fewer skills linked to academic success than their middle-class counterparts (e.g., worse problem-solving skills). Challenging this idea, we propose that one reason why people from working-class contexts underperform is because U.S. measures of achievement tend to assess people individually. We theorize that working together on measures of achievement will create a cultural match with the interdependent selves common among people from working-class contexts, therefore improving their sense of fit and performance. We further theorize that effective group processes will serve as a mechanism that helps to explain when and why working together affords these benefits. Four studies utilizing diverse methods support our theorizing. Using archival data on college student grades, Study 1 finds that groups with higher proportions of students from working-class contexts perform better. Utilizing a nationally representative sample of collegiate student-athletes, Study 2 suggests that the benefits of working together for people from working-class contexts are moderated by whether groups engage in effective group processes. Studies 3 and 4 demonstrate that working together (vs. individually) causally improves the fit and performance of people from working-class contexts. Study 4 identifies effective group processes as a mediator: People from working-class (vs. middle-class) contexts more frequently engage in effective group processes, thus improving their performance. Our findings suggest that assessing achievement individually is not class-neutral. Instead, assessing achievement in a way that is congruent with interdependent models of self — as people work together — can help realize the full potential of people from working-class contexts.

Class versus Identity: Candidates' Race and the Inequality-Redistribution Nexus
Konstantinos Matakos & Dimitrios Xefteris
Quarterly Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


Despite what the theory predicts, supply of redistributive policies does not always respond to rising inequality. We argue that redistribution reacts to changes in inequality, as long as the economy is not overshadowed by non-economic issues during the elections. To this end we construct a unique data set — where we estimate the race of candidates competing in all elections for U.S. state legislatures since 1980 — and show that the share of racially differentiated electoral contests has a disentangling effect on the inequality-redistribution link: when there are few (many) racially differentiated electoral contests, redistribution is (not) found to be sensitive to changes in inequality.

The Psychology of Entrenched Privilege: High Socioeconomic Status Individuals From Affluent Backgrounds Are Uniquely High in Entitlement
Stéphane Côté et al.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming


As rates of intergenerational social mobility decline, it is increasingly important to understand the psychological consequences of entrenched socioeconomic privilege. Here, we explore whether current and childhood socioeconomic status (SES) are interactively related to entitlement, such that among currently high SES individuals, those from affluent backgrounds are likely to feel uniquely high levels of entitlement, whereas currently low SES individuals feel low entitlement regardless of their backgrounds. A meta-analysis of four exploratory studies (total N = 3,105) found that currently high SES individuals who were also raised in high SES households were especially inclined to report feeling entitled, a pattern that was robust across three indicators of SES: income, education, and subjective SES. Results of a preregistered, confirmatory study (N = 1,058) replicated this interactive pattern for education and subjective SES, though not for income. Our findings highlight the importance of considering current and childhood SES jointly to understand the psychological consequences of SES.

The Decline of the American Middle Class: Evidence from the Consumer Expenditure Surveys 1988–2015
Jessie Fan & Hua Zan
Journal of Family and Economic Issues, June 2020, Pages 187–199


In 2010, the US Department of Commerce, commissioned by the White House Middle Class Task Force, recommended six indicators that define the middle class: having one’s own home, a car or two in the carport, taking a family vacation every year, sending kids to college, and having some retirement savings. We used the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) data to estimate the size of American middle class in selected years from 1988 to 2015 using three empirical variations of this definition and to test if there were upward or downward trends during these years. We found that the size of the American middle class was definitely on the decline between 1988 and 2015 for all three definitions. Multivariate analyses show that variations in total household annual expenditure and sociodemographic variables could not explain the decline. In fact, adjusting for these controls made the decline of the middle class over time more severe.

The Politics of Personal Responsibility, Credit, and the American Welfare State
Andreas Wiedemann & Tess Wise
Princeton Working Paper, April 2020


Personal responsibility is a prominent theme in the politics of the American welfare state. We argue that norms of personal responsibility interact with increased reliance on credit among individuals and shape support for the welfare state. The turn to credit for social welfare occurred in a period where structural changes in labor markets, rising inequality, and welfare reform coincided with “dog-whistle politics” portraying those who rely on the welfare state as racial minorities lacking in personal responsibility. Perceptions of easy access to credit resonate with a political message of personal responsibility, leading to lower support for public spending on social goods and services and, instead, more support for private spending that can be financed through credit. Using state-level observational data, we find that in states where voters hold stronger norms of personal responsibility, approximated by voters’ degrees of economic conservatism, easier access to credit is associated with more conservative economic policies. However, in states where voters hold more liberal economic norms, changes in borrowing constraints do not influence state policies’ degree of liberalism. We substantiate these state-level findings using an original survey of Americans. At the individual level, we find that a strong belief in personal responsibility and easy access to credit predicts support for private over public spending in the domains of education and unemployment insurance. This suggests that support for the welfare state in the United States is influenced by the interaction between beliefs about personal responsibility and access to credit.

Cognitive and brain development is independently influenced by socioeconomic status and polygenic scores for educational attainment
Nicholas Judd et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming


Genetic factors and socioeconomic status (SES) inequalities play a large role in educational attainment, and both have been associated with variations in brain structure and cognition. However, genetics and SES are correlated, and no prior study has assessed their neural associations independently. Here we used a polygenic score for educational attainment (EduYears-PGS), as well as SES, in a longitudinal study of 551 adolescents to tease apart genetic and environmental associations with brain development and cognition. Subjects received a structural MRI scan at ages 14 and 19. At both time points, they performed three working memory (WM) tasks. SES and EduYears-PGS were correlated (r = 0.27) and had both common and independent associations with brain structure and cognition. Specifically, lower SES was related to less total cortical surface area and lower WM. EduYears-PGS was also related to total cortical surface area, but in addition had a regional association with surface area in the right parietal lobe, a region related to nonverbal cognitive functions, including mathematics, spatial cognition, and WM. SES, but not EduYears-PGS, was related to a change in total cortical surface area from age 14 to 19. This study demonstrates a regional association of EduYears-PGS and the independent prediction of SES with cognitive function and brain development. It suggests that the SES inequalities, in particular parental education, are related to global aspects of cortical development, and exert a persistent influence on brain development during adolescence.

How Marriage Matters for the Intergenerational Mobility of Family Income: Heterogeneity by Gender, Life Course, and Birth Cohort
Seongsoo Choi, Inkwan Chung & Richard Breen
American Sociological Review, forthcoming


Adult children’s labor market status and their type of marriage are major channels through which family advantages are passed from one generation to the next. However, these two routes are seldom studied together. We develop a theoretical approach to incorporate marriage entry and marital sorting into the intergenerational transmission of family income, accounting for differences between sons and daughters and considering education as a central explanatory factor. Using a novel decomposition method applied to data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, we find that marriage plays a major role in intergenerational transmission only among daughters and not until they reach their late-30s. This is more salient in the recent cohort in our data (people born 1963 to 1975). Marital status and marital sorting are comparably important in accounting for the role of marriage, but sorting becomes more important over cohorts. The increasing earnings returns to education over a husband’s career and the weakening association between parental income and daughter’s own earnings explain why marital sorting, and marriage overall, have been growing more important for intergenerational transmission from parents to their daughters.

In the Footsteps of Siblings: College Attendance Disparities and the Intragenerational Transmission of Educational Advantage
Christian Michael Smith
Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, May 2020


Studies in social stratification have used siblings as a tool to learn about the intergenerational transmission of advantage but less often have asked how siblings impact one another’s life chances. The author draws on social capital theory and hypothesizes that when youths attend college, they increase the probability that their siblings attend college. The author further hypothesizes that this effect is strongest among youths whose parents do not have college degrees. Findings from a U.S. national probability sample support both hypotheses. Although it is possible that confounding factors drive the estimates, the author conducts robustness checks that show that confounding would need to be very atypically strong to invalidate a causal interpretation. The positive main effect suggests that an intragenerational transmission of educational advantage exists alongside the intergenerational transmission that receives more attention. Effect heterogeneity points to the potential redundancy of college-educated siblings’ benefits when youths already receive similar benefits from college-educated parents.

Ideology of Affluence: Rich Americans' Explanations for Inequality and Attitudes toward Redistribution
Elizabeth Suhay, Marko Klasnja & Gonzalo Rivero
Journal of Politics, forthcoming


As economic inequality increases, so does the importance of understanding affluent perspectives on the problem. We examine whether affluent Americans are more likely than others to hold individuals responsible for economic outcomes, and if such beliefs are associated with their attitudes toward redistribution. We conducted a novel survey that oversampled the top 5% of the U.S. income and wealth distributions. We elicited views about why some people achieve more success than others (intelligence, hard work, family wealth, luck) as well as why people vary in success-linked traits (their choices, environments, genes). Affluent Americans were more likely than others to tie economic outcomes to intelligence and hard work, and the top 1% were unique in emphasizing both choices and genes as causes of those traits. This individualization of economic outcomes was more strongly associated with economic conservatism among the affluent than others, suggesting it may justify their greater opposition to redistribution.

Skill-Based Contextual Sorting: How Parental Cognition and Residential Mobility Produce Unequal Environments for Children
Jared Schachner & Robert Sampson
Demography, April 2020, Pages 675–703


Highly skilled parents deploy distinct strategies to cultivate their children’s development, but little is known about how parental cognitive skills interact with metropolitan opportunity structures and residential mobility to shape a major domain of inequality in children’s lives: the neighborhood. We integrate multiple literatures to develop hypotheses on parental skill-based sorting by neighborhood socioeconomic status and public school test scores, which we test using an original follow-up of the Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey. These data include more than a decade’s worth of residential histories for households with children that are linked to census, geographic information system, and educational administrative data. We construct discrete-choice models of neighborhood selection that account for heterogeneity among household types, incorporate the unique spatial structure of Los Angeles County, and include a wide range of neighborhood factors. The results show that parents’ cognitive skills interact with neighborhood socioeconomic status to predict residential selection after accounting for, and confirming, the expected influences of race, income, education, housing market conditions, and spatial proximity. Among parents in the upper/upper-middle class, cognitive skills predict sorting on average public school test scores rather than neighborhood socioeconomic status. Overall, we reveal skill-based contextual sorting as an overlooked driver of urban stratification.

The Wealth of Generations, With Special Attention to the Millennials
William Gale et al.
NBER Working Paper, May 2020


We examine household wealth across birth cohorts and over time using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances. We show that although the Great Recession reduced wealth in every age group, longer-term trends indicate that the wealth of older age groups has increased while the wealth of younger age groups has declined. A substantial share of these changes, in both directions, can be explained by changes in household demographic and economic characteristics. As for the millennial generation, their median wealth in 2016 was lower than the wealth of any similarly aged cohort between 1989 and 2007. Millennials will have several advantages in wealth accumulation relative to previous generations, such as more education and longer working lives, but also several disadvantages, including weak prospects for economic growth and delays in home purchase and marriage. The millennial generation contains a significantly higher percentage of minorities than previous generations. We estimate that minority households have tended to accumulate less wealth than whites in the past, controlling for household characteristics, and the difference appears to be growing over time for Blacks relative to whites. These results apply to the period before the COVID-19 pandemic and are best interpreted as addressing generational wealth patterns through 2016 and providing a pre-COVID benchmark against which future studies can be compared.


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