For sociologists, social class determines life outcomes in a myriad of different ways. But for the general public, class has never mattered as little. Class has become the "dark matter" of society, a potent yet invisible force shaping social reality. What accounts for the persistent, yet invisible power of class? In this thesis I argue that much of contemporary class inequality is driven by the widespread belief that "class = competence". This belief biases third party assessment of performance, directly affects performance and decision-making through internalising expectations, and buttresses the status quo by legitimising inequality as the result of meritocratic processes. Yet, potent as it is, the effects of this belief are not obvious because it appears to be nothing more than the common sense observation that those who achieve positions of power, wealth, and prestige are highly competent.
In this thesis, I explore how this belief is driven by social cognitive processes. In particular, I look at psychological heuristics designed to facilitate social action in the context of uncertainty. Each empirical chapter sets out to address three important mechanisms related to the "class = competence" belief. The first empirical chapter establishes that the "class = competence" belief leads to biased third party evaluations of performance. The second empirical chapter shows that working class students internalise the "class = competence" belief, decreasing their likelihood of attending university. The third chapter explores how the belief emerges by testing a mechanism based on cognitive dissonance reduction.
William Foley is from Kilkenny, Ireland. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Instituto Carlos III-Juan March in Madrid.