Ongoing Research

Working Papers

The Social Roots of Self-Interest: The Desire for Social Status and Economic Conservatism Among Affluent Americans [This paper is based on my dissertation, which was selected as the Best Dissertation on Political Psychology by the American Political Science Association in 2018] (under review)

Affluent Americans have disproportionate influence over policymaking, and often use their power to advance conservative economic policies that increase inequality. I show that this behavior is partially driven by affluent Americans’ desire for social status. First, I use a new survey scale to show that affluent Americans’ desire for social status strongly predicts their level of economic conservatism. Second, I test my theory experimentally in the context of social media. On sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, affluent Americans compete for social status by sharing curated versions of their lives that highlight their upper-class lifestyle. When I randomly assign affluent Americans to experience this status competition, it causes them to become more economically conservative. The results show that the desire for social status leads affluent Americans to use their political power in self-interested ways, and provide the first evidence that social media encourages political behaviors that are conducive to inequality. [You can read this working paper here.]

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. [You can read about some of the preliminary results from this project here.]

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. [You can read this working paper here.]