In his book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls introduces a metaphorical idea explaining the social and natural “lotteries” every person unavoidably participates in at the time of their birth. Essentially, Rawls believes that “each person’s starting point in society is the outcome of a social lottery (the political, social, and economic circumstances into which a person is born) and a natural lottery (the biological potentials each person is born with).”
According to recent research, a person’s outcome in these “lotteries,”–whether they happen to be born into a position of better economic and social standing and in good health or the opposite–affects their perception of the world around them.
Many self-help gurus and motivational speakers may argue that an individual from any social strata can potentially better their personal situation and attain a position on a higher rung of a social ladder with sufficient effort. However, research shows that individuals in alternate social classes develop schemas of their social standing and their control over it, which respectively, may heighten or diminish their chances of social mobility.
In the case of the upper class, such schemas make it more likely for them to achieve success. Within lower class communities, the outlook lowers the amount of control they believe they possess in regards to their own life.
While researchers cannot say definitively that all individuals from a particular social echelon possess the same outlook on life and behave in the same manner, certain behavioral patterns have emerged that seem to be correlated with a person’s social ranking.
In the paper “Social Class, Solipsism, and Contexualism: How the Rich Are Different From the Poor,” Michael Kraus outlines nine ideas and relevant empirical evidence of how “class-based contextualist and solipsistic tendencies shape the self, perceptions of the social environment, and relationships to other individuals.”
His first theory outlines the difference in how upper class and lower class individuals interpret their circumstances in life and how they focus their attention.
Kraus and his co-authors wrote that upper class individuals tend to have a solipsistic point of view. This means that their focus is on their own “internal states, goals, motivations, and emotions.” Alternatively, lower class individuals tend to focus on “external, uncontrollable social forces and other individuals who influence one’s life outcomes.”
This theory can be seen in real life when upper class individuals, who often have the resources and support from others around them who are also financially stable, strive for their dreams and keep the focus on achieving life goals. Similarly, this theory is also seen when lower class individuals attribute the obstacles they face and the lower amount of opportunities available to them to systematic prejudice and racism.
Although solipsism can at times seem like a selfish and narcissistic approach to the world, it is undeniably beneficial in a number of ways.
As Kraus explains to BTR, if an individual only cares about their own goals and interests, they are less likely to worry about peripheral issues and more likely to focus on their own goals to the point of completion. He argues that making the choice to block out the suffering and needs of others helps people achieve their goals.
In regards to lower class individuals, Kraus believes there are more cases of “learned helplessness.”
“Being aware of all the contextual forces that influence you might make striving seem futile,” Kraus says. “Reducing your effort in those instances might be a rational choice for people.”
Lower-class individuals with a diminished perception of how much control they have over their own lives seem to have a more difficult time overcoming economically tough times and become discouraged by the systems they must function within.
Research has also shown that higher-ranking individuals tend to be healthier people, both physically and mentally.
The physical aspect of this theory isn’t very hard to believe. Upper class individuals usually have better access to healthcare, quality food choices, and proper nutritional education. They are also able to allot more time to physical activities that keep them in shape.
Mentally, research shows that rich people tend to be less sad. With more opportunities for success and most basic needs met, one can see why this is true. At the same time, however, it cannot be definitively said that rich people are happier per se than lower class individuals.
According to a 2010 study conducted by Princeton University, money stops buying happiness after about $75,000 a year. The study claims that making more money doesn’t necessarily make people happier but instead, “takes the sting out of their adversities and problems.”
The upper class are not immune to depression though. As Kraus tells BTR, the rich are used to having goals and opportunities handed to them. If they are in a position with less power they will find it unusual, and may ultimately cause them distress.
Lower class individuals on the other hand, may experience extreme anxiety if they hold two vastly different positions of power in their life. For example, this might occur if a man is the head of the household and in charge of making major decisions yet works a low-class job where he holds very little power.
How much money individuals have to kick around not only affects large world-view schemas. As Kraus relayed in his paper, empirical studies have found that individuals from different class backgrounds are guided by different manners and rules of etiquette, honor different customs and habits, express different aesthetic preferences for art and music, use language in different ways, and eat different foods.
For example, in a study of high-school educated individuals from European American backgrounds, the subjects were more likely to report they enjoyed country music, “which contains themes reflecting personal hardship against harsh external environments.” Such themes are consistent with the self-perception that one’s life is shaped by contextual forces.
College-educated individuals, on the other hand, preferred alternative rock music, which centers upon themes of autonomy, personal choice, and self-expression along the similar vein of solipsism.
After analyzing such research it may be tempting to say that upper class individuals have a much better chance at success and happiness, but it is important to remember that it is possible for a person of any social background to achieve their own type of happiness, monetarily or otherwise.
Many individuals today have the freedom to express through art, practice any religion freely, and spend time with loved ones and friends. Rich people do not always lead fulfilling lives and having less money does not always sadden those in the lower class.
In the book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, people in the last 12 weeks of their lives reported regretting how much of their life they spent working, how much they let the expectations of others influence their choices, and wishing they had stayed in touch with their friends–such regrets can be felt by individuals of all social backgrounds.
Feature photo courtesy of 401(K) 2012.