It is difficult to imagine any headline causing as much delight as this in the Guardian yesterday; ‘Upper class people are more likely to behave selfishly studies suggest’ (perhaps if the Sun ran with ‘women with large breasts especially keen on casual sex, researchers prove’, or ‘Brussels bureaucrats admit baby-eating allegations’ in the Telegraph’) .
I was particularly pleased to read the research from psychologists at the University of California in Berkeley as I found myself in class warrior mode on last week’s Moral Maze. The topic was whether children from poorer schools and backgrounds might be offered places in top universities on a preferential basis. My opponents on the programme (Michael Portillo and Claire Fox) accused me of supporting social engineering and in patronising the poor by assuming they couldn’t make it by their own efforts.
It doesn’t happen often, but I thought I made quite a telling point by asking why it was OK for the rich to give their kids a leg up though private education and expensive one-to-one tuition but not OK for universities to help poorer kids by recognising that getting an A and 2 B’s in a tough comprehensive is probably on a par with getting three A’s from Dulwich College. I have quite a few acquaintances who send their kids to private schools, none has so far admitted they are guilty of social engineering. (By the way, in relation to the protestations by Russell Group Universities that they are doing all they can to aid social mobility there is a very good piece here by Jonathan Portes.)
There is only one problem with my indignation about the hypocrisy and selfishness of the rich, but it’s rather substantial. You see, by almost all measures I’m rich too. Surveys and focus groups among the middle class people always find they hopelessly under-estimate how well-off they are. That I sent my own children to non-selective state schools is a fact but how do I know that I am not just as prone to selfishness as other top decile wage earners?
After all, I hang out with other middle class people and the Berekley study suggest selfish behaviour among the well-off tends to be reinforced by the social norms of the privileged. Furthermore, it is now a truism in social psychology that most people are both hypocrites and self-servingly deluded about their virtues (people systematically exaggerate how much money they give to charity, for example).
Instead of reading the Guardian article with righteous glee, it seems I should heed it as a personal warning.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.