Take a moment to imagine . . .
Imagine you are buying absolute favorite flavor of potato chip. Also, imagine the flavor is a very unpopular one. You might get a few looks at the grocery store that seem to say, “That’s the wrong choice, buddy; you should go with the original flavor.”
If you are middle class, these people’s judgments probably would stop there. People would not go on to think any harmful, negative things about you, beyond that you had made a foolish choice in potato chip flavor. However, if you are purchasing those weird-flavored potato chips with government assistance, our research suggests the negative judgment might not stop there.
When “purchasing while on government assistance,” a “wrong choice” can be seen as confirming a stereotype the public unfortunately widely has: that many people on government assistance are irresponsible and wasteful with money.
Our new research examines a way two biases can combine and how the economically disadvantaged can be especially vulnerable to these bias combinations.
In our new research, we found participants judged consumers receiving government assistance as more irresponsible and impulsive when the consumers purchased something the participants personally did not like or value. However, the same bias was not observed when the consumer they were judging was middle class.
In some of the study designs, participants rated their favorite and least favorite options from a set of snacks that were equivalently priced and equivalently unhealthy (e.g., chips, cookies, candy). In another study, the set of five options were equivalently-priced recreational activities (e.g., a movie, a local play).
When consumers receiving government assistance purchased an individual participant’s least favorite item, a participant was more likely to stereotype the consumer as irresponsible and impulsive, whereas when they purchased the participant’s favorite item, they were perceived as less so.
In an additional design, we simply varied whether a snack being purchased was a well-liked popular flavor or a generally less well-liked flavor. Here, we observed similar effects that were also statistically mediated by the egocentric evaluation mechanism.
Often stereotype bias works like this: a small detail “confirms” a bias and causes a quick jump to a stereotypical conclusion. In our work, the small detail that “confirms” the stereotype comes irrationally from another bias: the egocentric bias. And this effect occurs when it definitely should not, as in some of our studies the only criterion for “correct” is the literal “taste” of a food – there is no “objective right” choice here, only personal preference.
Many of these different studies have been recently published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing (N = 1,664). The paper published in this journal explores a number of different nuances and effects. Here are a few of the most relevant and interesting:
Everyone shows the egocentric + stereotyping combo bias against individuals that purchase things they personally don’t like, including liberals, people who generally support welfare policy, and even people who have been on government assistance before.
The bias effect against an individual on welfare is eliminated when information about the individual indicates that they are being price conscious (e.g., cutting coupons) or are buying an affordable essential (e.g., shampoo).
Egocentric evaluation affects policy judgments, such that when people personally do not like a food, they are less likely to support a law that makes that food permissible to purchase with government assistance. This occurs even for people that generally support government assistance policies.
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