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.]

Isolation Among the Rich Affects Politicians’ Views of Social Problems and Their Desire to Solve Them

Political elites frequently disregard the interests of low-income Americans when making policy decisions. I explore the causal roots of this tendency in a series of experiments conducted as part of an original survey of 1,224 politicians from 44 states. I find that politicians’ tendency to disregard the poor is rooted in their social isolation among the rich. In a first experiment, I show that politicians extrapolate from their privileged social networks to form perceptions of broader social conditions, causing them to underestimate how many of those they seek to govern are struggling financially. In a second experiment, I correct politicians’ tendency to underestimate financial hardship among those they seek to govern, and find that this causes an increase in their support for social welfare policies. The results are driven by Republican politicians, who are more likely than Democratic politicians to be isolated among the rich, underestimate financial hardship among those they seek to govern, and increase their support for social welfare policies when their misperceptions are corrected. Republican politicians limit welfare spending, and help produce rising inequality and financial insecurity, in part because they underestimate how difficult life has become for low-income families. [You can read this working paper 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.]