The experience of inequality: children's perception of social status and its impact on behavior and cognition
Harvey, Teresa E.
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For children surrounded by visible wealth disparities, experiences of economic status are integrated into everyday life. However, while objective poverty is linked with lower academic achievement and worse health outcomes for children, little is known about how the subjective experience of “feeling poor,” so-called Relative Deprivation (RD), affects children. This research assessed RD in children by investigating a) how young children understand their subjective social status (SSS), b) how status relates to risk preferences and c) the effect of RD on executive function. In Study 1, I examined perceptions of SSS in 4 to 10 year olds (N = 377, 198 female). I hypothesized that younger children would have less accurate SSS perception than older children. Results revealed significantly more accurate SSS perception with age. In Study 2, I investigated the relations between SSS, SES (objective status), and risk preferences in a gambling task with 4 to 10 year olds (N = 159, 102 female). I hypothesized that lower SSS and SES would separately predict more risky decisions and fewer “rational” decisions (using expected value). SSS was not related to risk, but higher SES significantly predicted fewer risky decisions and more rational decisions. In Study 3, children were randomly assigned to experience either RD or equality compared with a peer in quantities of candy (6 to 9 year olds; N = 142, 68 female). Inhibitory control and fluid intelligence were measured pre and post manipulation, through the Happy/Sad Stroop task and Raven’s Matrices. I predicted decreased performance in both inhibitory control and fluid intelligence for children experiencing RD compared to those experiencing equality. Contrary to this prediction, RD improved fluid intelligence and had no effect on inhibitory control. This may be because unequal experiences increased arousal and focus. Combined, these studies make two contributions to the field. First, children as young as 4 years of age are attuned to their SSS and this assessment becomes more accurate by 10 years of age. Second, the predicted negative effects of RD on risk and cognitive performance did not appear. In fact, for this fairly wealthy sample, RD improved problem solving. I consider how these effects may differ for lower income samples and in different contexts.
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