Ongoing Research

Selected 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.]

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.]

The Values of Elite University Students and Their Consequences for Inequality: 1967 to the Present

Understanding the origins of rising inequality is a pressing challenge. I identify a factor that may be contributing to inequality’s rise: the increasingly self-interested behavior of elites. I test my theory using a large time-series dataset of students at elite universities, who frequently go on to hold positions of power. The dataset contains surveys from more than 500,000 students who attended schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford between 1967 and 2006. I find that students at these elite universities have become far more concerned with financial success over the past half-century, and far more likely to pursue their self-interest in politics. These changes in elite behavior precede – and closely predict – the rise of inequality in the United States. These findings, which are complemented by additional evidence from panel data and an original survey of high-income adults, provide evidence of elites’ role in facilitating rising inequality. They also show the need to pay greater attention to the values being spread among students at elite universities today. To the extent that these students are being socialized to value financial success over other goals, the United States is likely to become even more unequal in the future. [You can read this working paper here.]