What class? It depends

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

 Here are five pens – four green and one orange (all have black ink). You can have one to keep. Go ahead, pick one.


If you identify as working class, then there is a 72% chance that you picked the green (majority) pen (28% orange). If you identify as middle class, then your pen choice is much harder to predict, but it’s slightly more likely that you picked the orange (minority) pen (58%) than the green pen (42%). These were the findings when this study was run under test conditions at San Jose State University, with participants receiving their pen as a “thank you” for taking part in the experiment. Why? Well there’s nothing special about orange versus green; the same pattern of majority versus minority choices if the colours are reversed.

Instead, the authors suggest that their finding is due to the fact that middle class values emphasize choice, individuality, and going against the grain, even in matters as trivial as picking the minority pen. In contrast, working class values (which the authors characterize as “it’s not just about you”) emphasize fitting in. Of course, all this is totally trivial when it comes to choosing a pen, but if the authors’ interpretation is correct, the study has some worrying implications when it comes to social mobility, particularly for careers that place a high value on individuality.

A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at bookshop.theguardian.com

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