Social class (socioeconomic status, SES) is a primary determinant of rank in the human social hierarchy, and in the present research I examined lay theories about social class categories and their implications for social policy. Lay theories about social categories (e.g., race, sexual orientation) differ to the extent that they are essential--based on internal, inherent, and stable characteristics--or socially constructed. Theory and research argue that high-ranking individuals in society justify their elevated positions by endorsing essentialist beliefs (Keller, 2005), and that individuals of upper social class--experiencing elevated control and freedom of choice--explain their social world in terms of stable, internal states, rather than external social forces (Kraus, Piff, & Keltner, 2009). Following from this analysis, I tested the predictions that upper-class individuals would be more likely to endorse essentialist lay theories of social class categories relative to lower-class individuals, and that class-based patterns in essentialist lay theories would explain differences in restorative social policy judgments--focused on protecting vulnerable groups, or rehabilitation-based punishments--among upper- and lower-class individuals.
Three studies bore out these predictions. In Study 1, participants with elevated subjective socioeconomic rank tended to endorse essentialist theories of social class categories, relative to lower-class rank participants. Moreover, this class-based essentialist tendency explained why upper-class individuals opposed more restorative policies providing education opportunities, ensuring tax relief for poorer people, protecting voting rights, and endorsing rehabilitation-based punishments. In Study 2, participants were manipulated to receive information suggesting that social class categories were either essentialist or socially constructed. Participants learning that social class was an essentialist social category opposed restorative policies (e.g., mandatory ethics seminars) for individuals caught cheating in an academic setting, relative to participants manipulated to perceive social class as a social construction. Finally, in Study 3, participants manipulated to experience a momentary increase in their relative socioeconomic rank became more likely to endorse essentialist theories of social class categories and, as a result, tended to favor restorative forms of punishment for financial crimes. The implications for understanding how beliefs about the malleability of social class can shape public policies toward social mobility and perpetuate current social inequality are discussed.