The following two papers are from an ongoing book project based on my dissertation, “Status Competition and the Politics of the Rich,” which was selected as the Best Dissertation on Political Psychology by the American Political Science Association in 2018.
Despite having similar interests, affluent Americans use their influence in different ways. Some affluent Americans pursue conservative economic policies such as lower taxes and decreased regulation, while others go so far as to oppose these same policies. Previous research has attributed this variation to differences in economic circumstances, such as occupation. I show that psychological differences matter as well. Using newly designed survey measures, I find that affluent economic conservatives are substantially more likely than other affluent Americans to desire money as a means of achieving status-related goals, including conspicuous consumption, social approval, and self-esteem. These motivations are particularly important for economically conservative affluent men, who are overrepresented in positions of power. They are also prevalent among non-affluent Americans who support conservative economic policies that benefit the rich. Overall, the findings show how status competition among affluent Americans – and affluent men in particular – may translate into greater inequality.
While political scientists are paying increasing attention to social media, they have neglected its influence on the politics of inequality. I show how using social media encourages affluent Americans to desire social status and pursue their self-interest in politics. On sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, affluent Americans engage in status competition by sharing curated versions of their lives that broadcast their economic success to others. In an experiment, I randomly assign subjects to experience this form of status competition by having them encounter Facebook posts in which others broadcast their economic success. This experience causes affluent Americans – and affluent men in particular – to become more concerned about social status, and more supportive of conservative economic policies that serve their financial interests. The results provide evidence that status competition causes affluent Americans to pursue their self-interest in politics, and show how social media may lead to a more unequal society.
When Poor Students Attend Rich Schools: Do Affluent Social Environments Increase or Decrease Participation? (with Tali Mendelberg, Tanika Raychaudhuri, and Vittorio Merola) (under review)
College is a key pathway to political participation, and lower-income individuals especially stand to benefit from it given their lower political participation. However, rising inequality makes college disproportionately more accessible to higher-income students, creating many predominantly-affluent campuses. Do low-income students gain a participatory boost from attending college? How does the prevalence of affluent students on campus affect this gain? Predominantly-affluent campuses may create participatory norms that elevate low-income students’ participation. Alternatively, they may create affluence-centered social norms that marginalize these students, depressing their participation. Using a large panel survey (201,011 students), controls on many characteristics, and quasi-experimental tests, we find that predominantly-affluent campuses increase political participation to a similar extent for all income groups, thus failing to close the gap. We test psychological, academic, social, political, financial, and institutional mechanisms for the effects. The results carry implications for the self-reinforcing link between inequality and civic institutions.
Selected Works in Progress
Are Political Elites Out of Touch? Experimental Evidence from State Legislative Candidates
American political elites have not counteracted the effects of rising inequality. I test a new explanation for this behavior: Political elites systematically underestimate the negative effects of inequality, causing them to oppose redistribution. I use an original nationwide survey of 1,222 candidates for state legislature that I conducted during the 2018 primary elections. First, I show that political elites spend most of their time with the affluent, and have few personal relationships with people who are experiencing financial hardship. Second, I demonstrate experimentally that political elites evaluate social conditions by extrapolating from the experiences of those they know personally, causing them to underestimate the proportion of people who are experiencing financial hardship in the state where they are running for office. Third, I find in another experiment that these misperceptions affect policy. Political elites whom I randomly assign to receive accurate information about the prevalence of financial hardship in their state become more likely to support redistribution relative to elites whose misperceptions I allow to persist. Republican elites are more likely than Democratic elites to be isolated among the affluent, underestimate the prevalence of financial hardship, and increase their support for redistribution when given accurate information. Republican elites limit redistribution in part because they are out of touch with the negative effects of inequality.