Poor people are often negatively stereotyped, especially by individuals with high power and influence.
Research shows that there is a significant stigma attached to poverty, even when it is not self-inflicted. Poor people are typically stereotyped as less competent, less proactive, and less responsible than those with substantial financial resources. On the other hand, poor people are typically stereotyped as warmer and more pleasant towards others compared to the wealthy.
As a result, the poor are often met with condescension and a hint of pity. They are perceived as pleasant, but not very smart or hardworking. Hence, when observing the poor from the outside, many argue that the poor need a swift kick in the rear rather than help.
The wealthy, in contrast, are often met with admiration and, by some, a touch of envy. They are perceived as capable, responsible, and hardworking, but not quite as kind and considerate towards others.
These stereotypes can have significant consequences for how individuals are treated in the workplace, by public service authorities, and by individuals with power and influence over others. It is well-known that many with power develop more condescending and less generous attitudes towards less powerful others.
The results from an experimental study I recently performed in Norway (see source below) suggest that individuals with high power and influence exhibit even more negative attitudes towards the poor and even more positive attitudes towards the wealthy, compared to individuals with less power and influence. Individuals with high power and influence stereotype the poor as even less competent and less agentic and responsible, whether analyzed separately or when compared to the wealthy. This pattern is evident even after controlling for observers’ gender, age, education level, and income.
These findings indicate that the poor are perceived and evaluated most negatively by precisely those individuals who in various ways can decide on or influence their lives.
The poor therefore often find themselves in a negative and self-reinforcing spiral, where they are punished for being poor, which in turn may help explain why there are higher rates of mental illness among individuals with low socio-economic status. The wealthy, on the other hand, are more likely to find themselves in a positive spiral, where they are rewarded for their privileged circumstances and hence find it easier to access new opportunities.
Many individuals may not acknowledge or admit to negative, stereotypical attitudes towards the poor nor corresponding positive, stereotypical attitudes towards the wealthy. Yet, if one has influence or decision-making authority over others, it is important to recognize that the risk of being biased by stereotypical perceptions is particularly high.
No one is lifted out of poverty by being viewed as dumb, irresponsible, and lazy. On the contrary, being exposed to negative stereotypes is most likely detrimental not only to their opportunities but also to their mental health. □
Lai, L. (2023). The effects of social vs. personal power on universal dimensions of social perception. Frontiers in Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1050287/full