Psychology Explains Why the Poor Defend the Rich

I’ve recently fallen in love with the books by Robert Reich, and I’m currently reading my third book of his within the last week. During my current read, Saving Capitalism, Reich dives into the myth of meritocracy and the ridiculous amounts of money that CEOs are paid. He lays out the massive increase of CEO pay over the years. For example, since 1978, CEO compensation is up 940%

Let me repeat that…940%

To put it in perspective, back in 1965, CEOs made on average about 20 times more than regular employees. In 2018, it was recorded that CEOs were being paid roughly 221 to 278 times more than the regular employee. In a nation where meritocracy supposedly exists, are we really going to lie to ourselves and say CEOs work over 200 times harder than the average employee? That’d be ridiculous to assume seeing as how a full-time worker at 40 hours per week couldn’t work 278 times harder if they tried.

But I’m not here to discuss the nuances of why meritocracy is a myth, I started wondering why the poor, working class defends the rich.

In the current chapter I’m reading of Saving Capitalism, Reich shares a story about how he was speaking somewhere and explaining the issues with our so-called meritocratic system when a blue-collar worker justified why the rich are paid so much. He explained that these CEOs went to college and are smarter than him, so they deserve these massive amounts of compensation.

I could relate to that because although I have a third for knowledge now in my 30s, I was a terrible student and screwed up my chances of going to college. I’ve used that as a way to ignore the flaws in our capitalist system for a long time until I really started educating myself.

The first issue is that we believe people who go to good schools are smart, good students, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Books like The Price of Admission by Daniel Golden and Pedigree by Laren Rivera teach us that what colleges you get into and what career you get are more dependent on the family you’re born into than anything else.

While I’m a huge nerd who has read over 260 books this year, I don’t expect everyone to do the same. But still, I couldn’t help but wonder why the poor defend the rich with the basic knowledge that’s out there.

Why do we justify the fact that a few people have more wealth than over half of the nation combined? Why do we support politicians who constantly give tax cuts to the rich? Why are we alright with the government bailing out the wealthy after they make bad gambles with massive amounts of money that ruin the economy? Why is it that people who reap the benefits of social welfare programs support the GOP who is adamantly against those programs?

Most of us are living paycheck to paycheck, have little to no money in savings, and any type of financial emergency would ruin us. So, why do so many of us make excuses for the rich?

As I thought about this for a bit and asked these questions, I came up with some psychological theories that may explain why we do this. Maybe by becoming self-aware, we can finally snap into reality and realize that this system isn’t working for us, and we can work towards change. By recognizing these two psychological reasons for why the poor defend the rich, we can start moving in the right direction.

Cognitive Dissonance

Dissonance theory was created by a famous psychologist by the name of Leon Festinger. He realized how irrational we can be, and he started to notice some patterns in how this happens, so he put it to the test. Festinger ran a multitude of studies where he found that frat boys were more likely to rate their fraternity experience higher based on the higher amount of hazing they went through. His team also discovered that when you give someone a harder, meaningless task, their more likely to say they had a good experience.

Festinger’s most notable study was when they researched a cult-like religious group that predicted the end of the world in the 1950s. He predicted that not only would the world not end, but the group's belief in the prophecy would be even stronger…and that’s exactly what happened.

After there was no flood that wiped out the human race and no UFOs came to save the cult members, some members left the group, but many stayed just as Festinger predicted. Why? They believed that because their belief was so strong that they saved the world and God showed mercy on the human race.

This is all documented extremely well in Festinger’s book When Prophecy Fails, which I highly recommend.

These studies helped Festinger develop dissonance theory. Basically, our mind has a difficult time holding two conflicting views, so we confabulate ridiculous stories to ease our dissonance. For example, the frat boys told themselves, “I went through all of that hazing to get in, so this must be a great fraternity.” And the members of the UFO cult told themselves, “I gave up all of my possessions, quit my job, and left my family, so this must be the right thing to have done.”

Too often, we assume people simply lack intelligence, but I believe most people are smart. The issue is that we experience brain flaws like cognitive dissonance, which also may explain why the poor defend the rich.

When you think about it, there’s a high amount of dissonance that happens when you’re a hard worker and barely scraping by. There’s also a lot of dissonance when your boss or your boss’s boss is making much more than you for all of the hard work you do.

To admit that the system isn’t working for us would mean we have to admit we’re being taken advantage of. Our self-image is then challenged if we admit to being taken advantage of. We may perceive ourselves as weak or someone who doesn’t stand up for themselves, and nobody wants to admit that, so we ease our dissonance by defending the rich.

Did you know that most people consider themselves “middle class”? Think about how much money you make and the financial struggles you experience. Do you believe that’s “middle class” status? Probably not, but you most likely identify as middle class. Why? Because admitting that we’re lower on the totem pole hurts our self-image as well. Until we’re willing to take a hit to our pride and ego, we’re unable to face the truth.

The Just-World Fallacy

We’re all control freaks whether we want to admit it or not. We believe that we’re in control, and it helps us see the world through rose-colored glasses. Due to our need for control, we often fall victim to what’s known as the “just-world fallacy”.

The just-world fallacy is when we wrongfully believe that the world is fair and there’s some sort of karmic justice that’s looking out for us. Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.

Why do we believe this? Because if we didn’t, we’d have to admit that life is filled with unpredictable chaos that we can’t control, and it’d drive some of us nuts.

I try to remember the just world fallacy to ease my frustration with people who blame the victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and other awful situations. When you see a woman who shames another woman who has been sexually assaulted by saying things like, “You shouldn’t have flirted with him,” or “Why were you walking alone?”, she’s using the just-world fallacy.

Those who use the just-world fallacy do it because they’re scared. They want to believe they’re in control. To admit that terrible things can happen to anyone at any time is a terrifying thought. So, rather than recognize the reality that bad things can happen to good people, they use this logical fallacy to ease their mind, no matter how offensive it may be.

So, what’s this have to do with why the poor defend the rich?

Using this fallacy helps us explain why we’re struggling to keep a roof over our heads and put food on our tables. We justify our low wages using this fallacy to make us believe that we have some sort of control. We blame ourselves or believe that we must have done something to deserve the position that we’re in.

This is a terrible way to think. Not only are you beating yourself up in defense of a rigged system, but you’re simultaneously selling yourself the lie that all billionaires must be hard-working good people. The reality is that many of them would sell their mother to make a buck, and the majority of them hit a string of very fortunate events that helped mold their success.

At the end of the day, we need to be able to accept reality for what it is and realize that this system isn’t working for us. Corporations receive billions in bailouts that they use for multi-million dollar bonuses so they can afford a summer home that they can travel to in a private jet. Meanwhile, the majority of us are working multiple jobs while living in a small apartment or home just to get by.

One of the best things I’ve learned from Robert Reich is that the rich love making the debate about Left vs Right because it keeps us fighting with each other. When we realize that the real issue is that it’s the top vs the bottom, we can start working together to pull for some real change. So, we all need to stop living in cognitive dissonance and using the just-world fallcy. This will help us wake up to the fact that we deserve better, and we can fight for change.

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