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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Social Class Person by Environment Interactions: Consequences of a Motivational Asymmetry

  • Author(s): Ni, Hua
  • Advisor(s): Huo, Yuen J
  • et al.

The present research examines the responses of students from higher versus lower social class backgrounds as they are exposed to new socioeconomic environments. We hypothesize that there is a motivational asymmetry between students depending on their socioeconomic status (SES) – while students from low-SES backgrounds are motivated to enter and adapt to high-SES environments because these environments contain opportunities for upward social mobility, students from high-SES backgrounds are not motivated to enter or adapt to low-SES environments because those environments do not contain interpersonal relationships or opportunities for advancement for them. Therefore, we predict that students from both high and low-SES backgrounds will rate high-SES environments as being more conducive towards status / achievement goals than low-SES environments, and students from low-SES backgrounds will be motivated to enter high-SES environments in pursuit of these status goals. Time spent in high-SES environments may result in students from low-SES backgrounds feeling a similar amount of belonging in both high and low-SES environments, leading to greater adaptation to different socioeconomic environments and the development of a bicultural social class identity. Meanwhile, we predict that these processes will not occur for students from high-SES backgrounds because they are motivated to avoid new (i.e., lower) socioeconomic environments. In three studies done with students at a prestigious university, we found support for the motivational asymmetry framework, specifically relating to questions around interpersonal belonging and opportunities for status / advancement. Students from high-SES backgrounds reported more belonging in high-SES environments than low-SES environments, whereas students from low-SES backgrounds reported equal amounts of belonging in both environments (Study 1). Both high and low-SES students reported higher perceptions of status, as well as greater perceived levels of future belonging and future status in high-SES environments as compared to low-SES environments (Study 2). However, while low-SES students reported moving between different socioeconomic environments more than high-SES students, we did not find differences in bicultural social class identities or adaptation between high and low-SES students (Study 3). Implications and future directions are discussed.

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