AS A COUNTRY, we’ve become obsessed with our divisions. The widening split between blue areas and red areas was on graphic display during the recent midterms. And partisan polarization only hints at the depth of our tribalism. The nation that basically invented the middle class is struggling to cope with resentment between the haves and have-nots.
Yet despite the intensity of our social divides, we struggle to describe them in any but the most superficial ways: rich vs. poor, rural vs. urban, “real” Americans vs. coastal elites. In reality, these categories are symptoms of a deeper cultural code. Just as a DNA test tells us more than a blood pressure reading, examining the deeper cultural programming that defines America’s classes can help us better understand what’s happening to our society.
When we look at people’s cultural mindsets instead of their incomes, we uncover a new perspective on our differences — and we start to see that many common assumptions about how the working and upper classes behave are dead wrong.
Many upper-class Americans — who often humblebrag about their busy, harried lives — assume their working-class counterparts simply aren’t as organized, punctual, or rule-abiding as they are. Think about the iconic working-class characters on network sitcoms: Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Roseanne Barr aren’t exactly paragons of virtue.
The reality is quite different. Studying hundreds of American adults, we found that it’s overwhelmingly the working-class ones who embrace strict rules to guide their behavior, whereas members of the upper class are more lax in their homes, workplaces, and personal lives. What’s more, lower-class participants are more likely to desire tighter social codes, as evidenced by their strong agreement with statements like “a functioning society requires strong punishments for wrongdoing.”
By comparison, many upper-class Americans seem to think they’re above the law, or at least common courtesy. In a study of traffic patterns, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, hid on the side of a busy California intersection. They found that drivers of luxury cars were far more likely to cut off other cars than were lower status cars — 29.6 percent of the time versus 7.7 percent of the time, to be exact. In fact, owners of nicer vehicles were also more likely to cut off pedestrians, an illegal act in California.
Beyond their reckless driving, people higher in social class actually show less class.
In one study, researchers videotaped participants interacting with a stranger for five minutes. Some people made great eye contact and responded to their partners with laughs and nods, while other participants were ill-mannered conversationalists. They doodled on their notebooks, fidgeted with nearby objects, and were generally more dismissive. Can you guess how these behaviors broke down along class lines? The lower-class participants were more likely to follow conventional etiquette and norms during these short interactions; upper-class participants were more likely to dismiss them.
The loose behavior of upper-class Americans can even make them less ethical. Studies have shown that they’re far more likely than working-class individuals to say they’d engage in unethical actions, ranging from cheating on a test to stealing software to keeping extra change from a cashier. In our surveys, working-class individuals were less likely to endorse unscrupulous actions like stealing supplies at work or cheating on tests. In another study, people who felt they were in a higher social class were more likely to take candy that they knew was for children next door.
At what age do these differences arise? Since past research has found that children have a grip on social norms by age 3, we examined if toddlers from the working and upper classes vary in their responses to norm violators. Instead of surveys, we relied on an ingenious behavioral tool: a hand puppet named Max. The experimenter showed Max and each child the proper and improper way to play four games. Next, the child was given a turn to play, followed by Max. When it was Max’s turn, however, he did something unexpected: Max broke the rules while exclaiming that he was playing the game properly. Within minutes, Max the puppet had become Max the norm violator.
The children’s reactions were telling: tight and loose attitudes were already deeply ingrained in these youngsters — and they fell largely along class lines. Working-class children were more likely to tell Max that he was doing the task wrong — “No! Not like that. Like this!” — or that he was cheating. By contrast, upper-class children appeared to be more accepting of Max’s rule-breaking, sometimes even laughing appreciatively. Even by age 3, upper-class kids thought there was nothing wrong with breaking the rules once in a while.
But digging deeper, what accounts for this gulf? A key factor is the logic of social norms in the first place: they evolve to help groups facing threats. The more serious threats a group faces, the tighter its norms will be. The working class see the world through a prism of threat, our research shows: They’re more concerned with paying the rent or mortgage, losing their homes and jobs, obtaining proper medical care, and having enough food to eat. They also live in more dangerous places and face far more hazards on the job.
Increased threat makes people want stronger rules, which are critical for their survival. In communities where teens may be tempted to turn to drugs and gangs, strict rules laid down by parents and other authority figures are essential to keeping kids on track. And for people in low-wage, routinized jobs where creativity is discouraged, breaking rules can mean getting fired.
In fact, when we asked our survey respondents to list the first five words that came to mind when they heard the word “rules,” upper-class respondents were more likely to write down negative words such as “bad,” “frustrating,” and “constricting,” while working-class participants consistently wrote down positive words, such as “good,” “safe,” and “structure.” For the lower class, rules provide moral order in a world of potential turmoil. This is also why, according to our surveys, the working class report liking order, not liking change, and preferring to stick with things they know; they yearned for the “good old days.”
By contrast, when you face less threat, you can afford to have weaker rules and take more risks because you have a safety net to catch you when you fail. The upper class are more entrepreneurial not because they’re more talented, but because they have the freedom to stumble.
In fact, the predominant US upper-class view of rules is that they’re made to be broken. Just look at popular books about success, like Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s “First, Break All the Rules” and Angela Copeland’s “Breaking the Rules & Getting the Job.” If we want to succeed, these books tell us, we’ll need to cast aside established social norms and chart our own path. This is sage advice for people who have little threat, but clearly bad advice for the working class.
Though they tend to shun rules, the relative looseness of the upper class offers several strengths: they tend to be much more creative, entrepreneurial, and open-minded. The working class, meanwhile, struggle with diversity: they are more suspicious of people who are different from themselves, who appear to threaten their sense of social order.
In today’s digital economy, several attributes of cultural looseness reinforce upper-class advantages. Whereas those from tight groups understandably tend to view change as a threat, loose communities see mainly opportunity. They have the cultural reflexes — socialized from a very early age — to adapt to disruptive changes, and the autonomy and independence to chart their own course.
The cultural root of our class divide has major implications for our politics and our economy. It’s all too easy to think about just financial differences between the classes while missing a deeper insight: that class differences are cultural and have evolved to deal with the different threats we experience. The more we can see the threats that shape a community’s attitudes, the better we can empathize with their worldview. Working-class voters who support Trump aren’t necessarily racist or irrational — they generally find his rhetoric of returning to a tight social order appealing because they feel very threatened. Politicians and policymakers alike need to help the working class deal with these disruptions.
We must recognize that it’s culture that we need to reckon with, not just our bank accounts.
Michele Gelfand, a professor at the University of Maryland, is the author of “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World.” Jesse Harrington is a research associate at Fors Marsh Group.