Princeton psychologists study perceptions of poverty

Ann Marie Russell

Ann Marie Russell

Despite negative stereotypes associated with poverty, people have very positive views of low-income people who are seen as striving to achieve, according to research by Ann Marie Russell, who earned her Ph.D. in Princeton’s Department of Psychology in 2012. She conducted the research as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellow under the guidance of her adviser Susan Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and a professor of public policy.

Her findings challenge existing studies indicating that people view low-income status as linked to personal failings such as laziness, low intelligence or an immoral lifestyle. The fact that so many middle class and wealthy people donate to charities serving low-income populations led Russell to explore whether attitudes toward the poor were more complex than previously documented.

Russell asked Princeton students to evaluate scenarios describing fictional fellow students who were categorized as either low-income or affluent, and either hardworking or not hardworking. She found that participants viewed hardworking individuals more positively than non-hardworking individuals,

regardless of income and wealth. Those who were poor and worked hard were viewed more positively than people who were wealthy and worked hard.

A second study in a non-student population confirmed her findings. “The extent to which people are seen to be striving or trying to improve their circumstances has a tremendous influence on how those people are viewed,”said Russell, who is the first person in her family to earn a graduate degree.

Russell, now a Princeton postdoctoral research associate focusing on issues of educational access, is working on a film that examines the experiences of low-income first-generation students at elite universities.

Sins of Omission

Hilary Bergsieker

Hilary Bergsieker

People value hardworking individuals, whether rich or poor, but what happens to that regard if positive words like “hardworking” and “competent” are left out?

When favorable descriptions are omitted, people often default to negative stereotypes, especially about people who have historically been discriminated against, according to work by Hilary Bergsieker, who received her Ph.D. from Princeton in 2012.

Bergsieker, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, was mentored by Fiske and advised by Nicole Shelton, a professor of psychology.

For example, when providing a reference for a job applicant, the use of terms such as “warm” and “personable,” combined with the omission of words such as “competent” and “hardworking,” often lead listeners to notice the absence of the positives and create unfavorable perceptions of the candidate.

“When the negative domain is totally absent, listeners start to draw their own conclusions,” Bergsieker said. The work was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in June 2012, and was supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.