“Social Class Rank, Essentialism, and Punitive Judgment”

[Social Psychology]

Born on third base and thought you hit a triple. A recent study by Kraus and Keltner showed that individuals who perceived themselves as higher in social class rank tended to understand their elevated position in essentialist terms. That is, high social rank individuals tended to believe that differences in social standing can be explained by natural or inherent factors, rather than the social-situation context. This effect held, even for participants whose perception of their social class rank was experimentally manipulated to be relatively higher, which, the researchers suggest, points to an initial causal link between high class rank and the tendency to adopt essentialist beliefs about social class. Kraus and Keltner also demonstrated that individuals who were more likely to explain social rank in terms of natural ability, were less likely to favor restorative justice, the idea that criminals should be rehabilitated, as opposed to retributive justice, which is based on the idea of deterrents. This research has implications for how people perceive social mobility and class, and the researchers pose a question for future research: “Do essentialist beliefs in social hierarchy underlie current punishment practices in the United States?”

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