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Incompetent people from wealthy backgrounds are more likely to act like they’re smart — and people believe them

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“Advantages beget advantages.”

That’s the conclusion of a series of studies published by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Virginia, and published Monday in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. “Individuals with relatively high social class are more overconfident,” they concluded. And, they said, others buy into it.

Individuals with relatively high social class are more overconfident and appear more competent to others. This helps them attain higher-earning jobs.

“Social class shapes the beliefs that people hold about their abilities and that, in turn, has important implications for how status hierarchies perpetuate,” the lead authors, Peter Belmi, assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Virginia, and Margaret A. Neale, a professor of management at Stanford University, wrote.

What’s more, other people assume they’re more confident than they are, which perpetuates social inequality and confers a class advantage on those individuals, they said, even if they’re less competent than someone from a less advantageous social background. “It can provide them a path to social advantage by making them appear more competent in the eyes of others,” they added.

Their findings, “The Social Advantage of Miscalibrated Individuals: The Relationship Between Social Class and Overconfidence and Its Implications for Class-Based Inequality,” help explain why individuals who work at elite and prestigious firms tend to come from elite educational institutions, and why those born in the “upper-class echelons” are likely to remain there, the authors said.

Class distinctions can also affect people’s careers

Belmi and Neale tested these ideas across four large studies with a combined sample of 152,661 individuals. In one mock job interview, they found that “higher-class individuals were more overconfident.” That overconfidence, in turn, made them appear more competent and more likely to attain social rank.” In other words, they were more likely to get the job.

People from working-class backgrounds in high-status occupations earn 17% less, on average, than individuals from privileged backgrounds.

A separate 2016 study, “The Class Pay Gap in Higher Professional and Managerial Occupations,” and published in the American Sociological Review, took advantage of newly released data from Britain’s Labour Force Survey, and examined the relative openness of different high-status occupations and the earnings of the upwardly mobile within them.

Those researchers from the London School of Economics found a distinction between traditional professions that typically recruited from the upper classes — such as law, medicine, and finance — which are dominated by the children of higher managers and professionals, and more technical occupations — such as engineering and IT — that recruit more widely from all strata of society.

There’s a “class ceiling” for employees from working-class backgrounds, those researchers found. “Even when people who are from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering high-status occupations, they earn 17% less, on average, than individuals from privileged backgrounds. This class-origin pay gap translates to up to £7,350 ($11,000) lower annual earnings.”

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Inequality around the world has reached a tipping point

Academia is not immune. In “Presumed Incompetent,” a collection of personal essays on the intersection of race and class at universities, Samuel H. Smith wrote, “Universities have much in common with elite country clubs. The academic credentials are necessary to be invited to join, but like all country clubs, not all members are perceived as equal.”

In the U.S., out of 100 children whose parents are among the bottom 10% of income earners, only 20 to 30 of them actually go to college.

Such structural class systems help keep wealth in the hands of the few, economists say. The U.K.-based House of Commons Library said last year that, based on current trends, the richest 1% will control nearly 66% of world’s money by 2030. Based on 6% annual growth in wealth, they would hold assets worth $305 trillion, up from $140 trillion today, the Guardian reported.

The divergence in the levels of inequality has been “extreme” between Western Europe and the U.S., according to a separate report, released earlier last year by the World Inequality Lab, a research project in over 70 countries based at the Paris School of Economics, and co-authored by the French economist Thomas Piketty. “The global middle class has been squeezed,” it said.

There is an opportunity gap as well as a wealth gap, particularly when it comes to getting a college education. In the U.S., out of 100 children whose parents are among the bottom 10% of income earners, only 20 to 30 of them actually go to college. However, 90 out of 100 children go to college if their parents are within the top 10% earners.

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