Why the privileged may overstate their struggles

People who have benefited from their skin color, family wealth or networks may feel psychological pressure to prove their personal merit.

When successful people come from privilege, their experience can clash loudly with America's bootstrap myth, in which success is — or should be — achieved through a combination of two things: talent and hard work. One way people from higher-income brackets deal with the potentially guilt-inducing dissonance is by exaggerating claimed struggles they overcame to achieve their success, according to behavioral research out of Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

"There's this anxiety about being in the top class," says Brian Lowery, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. "Why do you deserve what you have? If you point out that they benefit because they're part of this group, that makes them uncomfortable."

Dr. Lowery details the findings in a paper based on a series of experiments involving nearly 2,400 subjects. In five of the experiments, the participants attended elite higher educational institutions. Two other studies included subjects with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000 and incomes over $100,000.

The experiments found when people confronted evidence of their class privilege, they claimed to have experienced more hardships in their personal lives, because these hardships imply personal merit. When privileged participants could not claim hardship, they claimed greater effort in the workplace and greater effort on a difficult task.

Dr. Lowery notes that the urge to conceal the influence of one's own privilege has potential to cause harm in today's business organizations. 

"If you have someone who comes from a privileged economic background, they're not generally starting in the mail room," he explains. "But because people don't understand how they got to where they are, they're not likely to address the inequities that exist."

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