Despising the poor

In an exclusive extract from her new book 'Mind Over Money: The Psychology of Money and How to Use It', psychologist and presenter Claudia Hammond considers why we might unwittingly discriminate against those worse off than us.

Why are we sometimes hostile to other people? Traditional research on prejudice suggests that the big factor is difference.

That’s to say, we tend to dislike and distrust other people if they are different from us. What’s more, when it comes to other groups, we are particularly likely to notice the differences between them and us, while in our own group, it’s the simi­larities which stand out. Something called the stereotype content model takes this process a stage further. It argues that in order to decide on our emotional response to another person we make a two-step judgement. First, we ask ourselves whether they are friend or foe; in other words, do we consider them to be a warm character or not. Second, we judge whether or not we think of them as competent. It’s by balancing these two judgements that we settle on our feelings. So, with older, frail people, for example, we might feel they’re not very compe­tent any more, but they’re certainly no threat, so our strongest feeling towards them is pity.

When it comes to money, many of us consider rich people to be competent, but lacking in warmth, so our prevalent feeling is one of envy. And then there are the poor. If we consider that they’re lacking in both warmth and competence, the resultant feeling is disgust. Indeed, so strong is this feeling that it can lead us to consider them as somehow less than fully human.

Now, hang on a minute, I can hear you cry. I don’t feel like this towards poor people; quite the reverse in fact. Well, maybe. And neither do I. I’m just telling you what the research has shown, as shocking as it might be. 

Among the more compelling evidence are brain scans taken at Princeton University in 2006 by the neuroscientists Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske. They put volunteers in a scanner and showed them colour photographs of people belonging to different social groups. Some were clearly rich – for example, businessmen in fancy suits; while the appear­ance of others was such that they were obviously not just poor, but destitute.

When the volunteers looked at the pictures of homeless people, two-thirds were prepared to admit that their imme­diate reaction was one of disgust – which was interesting, and disturbing, in itself. But what interested Harris and Fiske more was the activity in the brain.

The brain scans had shown that when the volunteers were looking at pictures of rich people, the medial prefrontal cortex was activated. This was in line with previous research, which had demonstrated that it is this area of the brain which is activated whenever we see another person rather than an inan­imate object. To put it crudely, the grey matter flashes up a message saying ‘same species here’ and that tells us that we should relate to this other thing in front of us as a fellow human being, rather than a lawn mower or a pigeon or whatever.

But when the people in the scanner were shown the pictures of homeless people the medial prefrontal cortex failed to do its thing. Yes, that’s right, the brains of the volunteers didn’t register that the shambling guy with the matted hair, the shapeless coat and the broken-down boots was another human being. Instead the areas of the brain associated with disgust were activated. A vulnerable person was dehumanised. 

When I saw this study I thought, as you might have done, of the vast and ghastly literature surrounding the Holocaust. How, you ask yourself, did so many German people (and others) come to treat Jewish people (and others) with such cruelty and inhumanity? How could they not see that, even in their most degraded condition, they were fellow human beings?

Perhaps this study is part of the answer. It’s a shuddering and sobering thought. Disgust is such a strong emotion that it was even harnessed deliberately. When the writer Primo Levi (1988) described his long journey by train to the concentration camp during the Holocaust, he says the Nazi soldiers told him and his fellow Jews to bring money and valuables, but didn’t suggest bringing something to use as a toilet on their long journey. So when the prisoners arrived at a busy Austrian railway station and were briefly released onto the platform, the first thing they did, not surprisingly, was to defecate in front of the waiting passengers. The Nazis had contrived to make them immediately appear disgusting and a little less human, making their appalling treatment seem a little less unacceptable.

Claudia Hammond presents BBC Radio 4's 'All in the Mind'

But let’s get back to our attitudes towards the poor, which – while less chilling – still demonstrate a disturbing hard-heartedness.

Public attitudes research in the UK would suggest that, for a start, many of us think that if you’re poor it’s your fault. It also seems that, in some ways, attitudes are hardening. In a recent survey carried out by the eminent anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (which is named after one of Britain’s great nineteenth-century social campaigners and philanthropists), 69 per cent of people agreed that, ‘there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to. It comes down to the individual and how much you are motivated.’ 

This was despite the fact that many respondents believed that poverty was now something that could affect anyone because of the downturn in the economy. Meanwhile in another authoritative study of social attitudes, researchers noted that between 1994 and 2010 the percentage of respondents saying people were poor due to their laziness or lack of willpower had increased from 15 per cent to 23 per cent, while the proportion citing injustice in the system had declined from 29 to 21 per cent. (Incidentally most people think poverty is just something that will always happen – with more than a third citing it as ‘inevitable’.)

Sympathy for the poor appears to be in short supply, and one possible reason why surfaced when researchers from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation carried out group discussions among members of the public living in areas of high depri­vation in two British cities (see Hall et al., 2014). In every group, people would tell stories of families they knew who could not afford to buy enough food, but had brand new phones or the latest TVs. As we’ll see in the next chapter, we all hold strong views on what constitutes appropriate spending in certain financial circumstances, and when poor people buy things we regard as luxuries while saying they can’t afford neces­sities we are particularly riled.

Overall, these studies suggest that a good number of people, and maybe even an increasing number, seem to think that the poor could just snap out of it if, to use a phrase beloved by some, they pulled their socks up a bit. And remember, this is not just the attitude of richer people, who might not understand what it’s like to have money worries. These surveys and studies also involved less well-off people too, who we might expect to have more sympathy.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that such attitudes persist, because other studies have shown that children as young as five have already acquired negative ideas about the poor that they carry through their childhood. This is particularly the case with middle-class children, while the attitudes of children who are poorer themselves tend to be more nuanced (see Heberle & Carter, 2015).

In one study, researchers showed American children between the ages of five and 14 two photographs, one of a ‘run-down’ house badly in need of repainting and one of a ‘nice’ suburban house with a manicured lawn. The children were then asked to imagine who might live in the two different houses, what characteristics they might have and which of the children they’d prefer as friends.

Now, first of all, I’m pleased to be able to restore your faith in the goodness of human nature somewhat by reporting that the majority of the children participating in the study, whatever their own background, were generally quite nice about the imagined people in both houses (Weinger, 2000). But at the more detailed level, attitudes differed, largely along class lines. For instance, while some of the poorer children spoke of how clean and well-organised life in the middle-class home would be, around one in five said they thought such people would be snobby, rude or bullying. ‘They are richly happy, while poor people are lying in the snow,’ one child said.

When it came to the people in the run-down house, some of the middle-class children said they thought a family living there were likely to be lazy, dirty or mean, and they could imagine them doing things like ‘busting windows’. In contrast, children from low-income families themselves were more sympathetic. One said, ‘If they’re not rich or their clothes are messed up, some people laugh about them. I try to be their friend.’ That said, some of the poorer children also demonstrated negative attitudes towards the imagined family in the run-down house, and they certainly seemed to be aware that wider society judged poor people harshly. For example, one of the reasons the poorer children said they would prefer to be friends with the poor children in the imagined scenario was because they felt they’d be less judged by them.

One of the most worrying aspects of the formation so early in life of negative attitudes about poor people is that it can lead to poverty becoming ever more entrenched. Other research has shown that children as young as six and seven think poor children are bound to do worse at school. The majority of better-off pupils will achieve their dreams, children told researchers, while less than a quarter of poor children will do so (Heberle & Carter, 2015). 

Where there’s a lack of opportunity, these outcomes may be close to the truth of course, but if poorer children are led to take such a view there is risk that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is known in psychology as stereotype threat. A certain group underperforms as a result of constant reminders of the negative stereotypes that others hold about them. So for children from the low-income families, the concern is that they feel so fatalistic about their life chances that they don’t even think it’s worth trying.

And other studies suggest that more negative attitudes towards the poor than the middle classes persist into adult­hood, with people rating those on low incomes as more likely to be lazy, dirty, unmotivated, unpleasant, angry and stupid (Cozzarelli et al, 2001). 

A troubling study from Oklahoma in the 1990s found that medical students, who are likely to have more poor than rich patients, became less positive about poorer people the longer they worked with them. By their fourth year of training, they said they were less willing to provide care for patients who couldn’t pay for it and more likely to view them negatively (Crandall et al, 1993). This study was conducted a while ago, so let’s hope for the sake of their patients that things have changed.

One reason why some people blame the poor for their poverty is because they hold on to what’s known as the ‘belief in a just world’ (Lerner, 1980). This is the idea that the world is on the whole a fair place, and that in general we get what we deserve in life. Holding such a world view can be reassuring, and it helps give people a sense of control. But the downside is obvious. It leads to the view that people are the authors of their own misfortune, so in the case of the poor, that they didn’t study enough at school, or don’t put in as much effort at work, or are feckless and spendthrift with what money they do have (Weiner et al, 2011). Indeed a study of attitudes towards homelessness conducted back in 1992 found that opinion ranged from sympathy right through to anger and disgust. Those who were more hostile were more likely to believe in a just world (Guzewicz & Takooshian, 1992).

But what of our attitudes towards the rich? If a person dislikes the poor, does that mean that they like the rich? Not necessarily. New research from Suzanne Horwitz at Yale University has demonstrated that these attitudes are inde­pendent, so it doesn’t follow that if you dislike the poor, you automatically like the rich or vice versa (Horwitz & Dovidio, 2015). Psychological studies using surveys tend to find that people say they don’t like the rich, but the results of Horwitz’s study using a version of the Implicit Association Test would suggest otherwise. This is a technique which aims to tap into people’s real views, rather than those they would like the experimenter to think they hold. They have often been used to test racist feelings.

People sit at a computer while words flash up on the screen. Their task is to categorise the words as good or bad and to press a certain key for each. So ‘excellent’, for example, counts as a word meaning good. But they also have to categorise words as fitting into the category rich or poor. Here, ‘high income’ would fit into the rich category.

But here is the clever bit. People are told to answer as fast as they can. The computer is measuring how long they take. So if people are faster at answering when good words and rich words are associated with the same key on the keyboard, then it suggests they see a link in the meaning between those two words. These tests are hard to fake, and therefore provide a good picture of people’s real views about a topic.

So, the psychologists in this study found that, despite what middle-class people said up front about rich people, subcon­sciously they tended to be pro-rich, but they weren’t necessary anti-middle class (the study didn’t include attitudes towards low-income groups). Further proof of this came when partic­ipants were given a story about two drivers crashing, one driving a pricey Jaguar, the other an old Toyota. Those who had shown up as pro-rich on the previous test were more lenient on the driver of the expensive car.

In other words, without realising it, we might admire the rich and this could result in us treating them more kindly than people with less money, in other words unwittingly discriminating against the poor. And if that’s not bad enough for the people in poverty, because the world is not just, once they are there it can be hard to escape. Among the reasons is that poverty can lead people to make exactly the bad decisions which lead others to label them irresponsible.

- 'Mind Over Money' is published by Canongate on 19 May. For more on Claudia Hammond, read our 2009 interview and find more in the archive.


Cozzarelli, C. et al (2001) Attitudes Toward the Poor and Attributions for Poverty. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 207–227. Also for a useful summary of many studies of attitudes towards the poor see Lott, B. (2002) Cognitive and Behavioural Distancing from the Poor. American Psychologist, 57(2), 100–110.

Crandall S.J. et al (1993) Medical Students’ Attitudes Toward Providing Care for the Underserved: Are We Training Socially Responsible Physicians? JAMA, 269, 2519–2523.

Guzewicz, T. & Takooshian, H. (1992) Development of a Short-form Scale of Public Attitudes Toward Homelessness. Journal of Social Distress & the Homeless, 1(1), 67–79.

Hall, S. et al (2014) Public Attitudes to Poverty. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006) Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low: Neuroimaging Responses to Extreme Out-Groups. Psychological Science, 17, 847–853.

Heberle, A. & Carter, A. (2015) Cognitive Aspects of Young Children’s Experience of Economic Disadvantage. Psychological Bulletin, 141(4), 723–746. 

Horwitz, S. & Dovidio, J.F. (2015) The Rich – Love Them or Hate Them? Divergent Implicit and Explicit Attitudes Toward the Wealthy. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, doi: 10.1177/1368430215596075

Lerner, M.J. (1980) The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York: Plenum Press.

Levi, P. (1988) The Drowned and the Saved. London: Abacus.

Weinger, S. (2000) Economic Status: Middle Class and Poor Children’s View. Children & Society, 14, 135–146.

Weiner, D.O. et al (2011) An Attributional Analysis of Reactions to Poverty: The Political Ideology of the Giver and the Perceived Morality of the Receiver. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 199–213.

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I found this a compelling article and one that I would cite in support of my own perspective of the issues touched upon. However, at its heart is a glaring non-sequiter:

"The brain scans had shown that when the volunteers were looking at pictures of rich people, the medial prefrontal cortex was activated. This was in line with previous research, which had demonstrated that it is this area of the brain which is activated whenever we see another person rather than an inan­imate object...But when the people in the scanner were shown the pictures of homeless people the medial prefrontal cortex failed to do its thing. Yes, that’s right, the brains of the volunteers didn’t register that the shambling guy with the matted hair, the shapeless coat and the broken-down boots was another human being. "

The activation of the medial PFC in response to "rich people" or those who are not perhaps rich but nonetheless human, in contradistinction to non-human or marginal humans is thereby presupposed to indicate that the percipient equates marginalised persons with the non-human, but logic does not support such a presupposition.

There are perhaps several alternative interpretations of what is clearly a bald correlation. I havent bothered to think about others given that there is one that is glaringly obvious. That obvious alternative being that the medial PFC is activated in response to inter-personal salience. In other words, a "rich" person might elicit adaptive relevance. A "rich" person might be someone useful to relate to or...putting it crudely in terms that would characterise much of such perception...someone to "suck up to". We see this all the time in life. It was satirized in an episode of Fawlty towers to great effect. By contrast neither a non-human nor a "poor" person represents any such opportunity for social interaction of material benefit to the percipient. This does not necessarily indicate that the percipient categorises the person who is of no perceived utility to interact with as not human.

This is then yet another example of how correlations observed in brain imaging prompt ready assumptions and the effect of particular narratives being passed off to a public that is "blinded by science" in the guise of the most gee-whizz technology of the day.