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Thick Skin Bias Shapes Our Views of People in Poverty, Studies Show

Child at food shelf

Key Takeaways

  • According to several studies, impoverished people as perceived as being less harmed by negative experiences.
  • This has far-reaching implications in terms of how those in poverty are treated, both in policies and in everyday interactions.
  • An expert suggests that the first step toward change for individuals is becoming more aware of implicit bias.

People of lower socioeconomic status are systematically perceived as being less harmed by negative experiences than those in higher economic brackets, according to new research published in Behavioural Public Policy.

Using 18 different studies, researchers from Princeton University found that this type of view—which they call "thick skin bias"—affects both adults and children as well as people of all races and can be seen in numerous settings, including customer service, mental health, and educational contexts.

Less Money, Less Affected?

The first four studies in the research followed the same procedure of presenting about 500 participants with brief stories of individuals, along with photographs and asking them to rate the extent to which they thought each person would be affected by negative events.

For example, a typical story stated that the individual had struggled to pay bills and is financially unstable, and participants rated whether that person might be harmed by negative life events like being insulted by a boss, having a heating system break in the middle of winter, being wrongfully accused of shoplifting, and even a mildly negative event like getting an overcooked meal for takeout.

For comparison, they were asked about the effects of these events on another individual who wasn't experiencing financial difficulties.

In all four studies, as well as ensuing ones with similar structure, the majority of participants felt the more impoverished person would be less affected by these negative occurrences, especially compared with those are more economically advantaged.

What This Means for You

Instances of subtle racism, sexism, and classism are all forms of implicit bias, which causes us to make assumptions about groups of people based on stereotypes that society has perpetuated. The deconstruction of your own implicit biases is no easy task and requires a good deal of self-reflection.

A great place to start? Cultivate compassion for people who are struggling and try to put yourself in their shoes. Life is hard (especially these days) and it's critical we remain supportive of one another, regardless of socioeconomic status.

The Roots of Bias

Perceiving those experiencing economic hardship as less affected by their situation is different from the tendency to dehumanize those in poverty, a phenomenon that is also backed up by research, the recent study noted. But there is a connection, the researchers suggest.

"The perception is that individuals in poverty are limited to diminished forms of human emotion and experience," says researcher Eldar Shafir, PhD in the department of psychology at Princeton University.

This can show up acutely when looking at racial bias, in addition to socioeconomic bias. For example, a research review in the American Journal of Public Health , concluded that many health care providers appear to have an implicit bias in terms of positive attitudes toward white patients and negative attitudes toward BIPOC.

Eldar Shafir, PhD

The perception is that individuals in poverty are limited to diminished forms of human emotion and experience.

— Eldar Shafir, PhD

A 2016 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that a substantial number of white medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between Black and white people, such as "black people's skin is thicker," and that they require less pain medication.

Just as biases like these tend to affect the quality of care that BIPOC individuals receive, the perception that people in poverty are more "thick-skinned" can also have a profound effect in terms of their treatment in society.

Result of Misguided Perception

Another part of the recent series of studies was the recruitment of different types of professionals, to see how they regarded people of low socioeconomic status.

Researchers asked chefs, social workers, teachers, and graduate students studying to become therapists to assess the same types of stories other participants had read. Again, the same thick-skin bias was dominant, even among social workers.

"This has the potential to affect the ways people are perceived and treated in many different settings, including determining which customers receive more consideration from service employees, which students receive care and attention in the classroom, and which patients receive more dedicated care from mental health professionals," says Shafir.

Work at an Individual Level

With the recent Black Lives Matter protests, bias has become a major topic in the national conversation, and that's a positive step for more awareness of the role of racism in society. Bias around socioeconomic levels may follow, according to Jose Moreno, PhD, psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

"There is increasing awareness that bias is pervasive," Moreno says. "Calling each other to action includes a challenge to identify what biases we may have developed. The question then becomes, what do you do with that awareness?"

An initial strategy is to pay attention to interpersonal interactions, he says. For example, do a check-in on whether you extend less courtesy, care, and respect to those of a lower socioeconomic status, Moreno suggests.

Jose Moreno, PhD

Calling each other to action includes a challenge to identify what biases we may have developed. The question then becomes, what do you do with that awareness?

— Jose Moreno, PhD

"Understanding our thick-skin bias may allow us to be more in tune to those microaggressions we may not be seeing," says Moreno.

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  1. Cheek N, Shafir E. The thick skin bias in judgments about people in povertyBehav Public Policy. 2020;1-26. doi:10.1017/bpp.2020.33

  2. Hall WJ, Chapman MV, Lee KM, et al. Implicit Racial/Ethnic Bias Among Health Care Professionals and Its Influence on Health Care Outcomes: A Systematic ReviewAm J Public Health. 2015;105(12):e60-e76. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302903

  3. Hoffman KM, Trawalter S, Axt JR, Oliver MN. Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2016;113(16):42964301. doi:10.1073/pnas.1516047113