Is belief in the Protestant Work Ethic related to attitudes toward rich and poor?

Recently, a call went out to people who study social psychology to examine the relationships between belief in the protestant work ethic (e.g. “I feel uneasy when there is little work for me to do.”) and measures of prejudice or political attitudes regarding poverty or HIV/AIDS. Researchers from Stony Brook University wanted to aggregate the results from datasets around the world. Since we do have endorsement of the protestant work ethic in our dataset, I wanted to contribute to their effort and below are some correlations with potentially interesting constructs.  Hopefully this will help those researchers.

Correlation of Protestant Work Ethic with….

Attitudes Toward Homosexuals (r=-.36, N=303, p<.001)
Attitudes Toward Muslims (r=-.11, N=305, p<.05)
Attitudes Toward Poor People (r=-.193, N=306, p=.001)
Social Dominance Orientation (“Inferior groups should stay in their place”, r=.336, N=331, p<.001)

I’m not sure if these are exactly the types or relationships that the researchers are interested in, but they seem related. The relationships seem pretty clear…that the protestant work ethic is related to negative attitudes toward outgroups (muslims, homosexuals, “inferior groups” and poor people).  However, the relationship between conservativism and the protestant work ethic is large enough (r=.416, N=1009, p<.001), that it’s possible that the only reason these variables are related is because they are all correlated with conservativism.

Sure enough, if we control for political orientation, the relationships become statistically insignificant for attitudes toward homosexuals (beta=-.085, N=229, p=.143) and Muslims (p=.459).  Attitudes toward poor people (beta = -.159, N=231, p<.05) and social dominance orientation (beta = .138, N=262, p<.05) remain significantly related to belief in the protestant work ethic, even controlling for ideology.

The below diagram shows this in graph form, where attitudes toward poor people are negatively related to endorsement of the protestant work ethic amongst both liberals and conservatives.

…and people who endorse the protestant work ethic also like rich people (see below).

At some level, this relationship is fairly obvious, but as a liberal, it’s something worth internalizing, since liberals sometimes make negative attributions about conservative attitudes toward the poor (despite the fact that conservative churches often do great humanitarian work). Specifically, conservatives may not dislike poor people mindlessly.  Rather, their opinions about rich and poor people may be related to worthy moral concerns, specifically a belief in the importance of hard work, and they may feel that wealth is indicative of hard work.  Results are consistent with work by Skitka and Tetlock, showing that conservatives are strongly influenced by the responsibility shown by those who want assistance.

How can liberals use this knowledge? Perhaps rather than playing the race/fairness angle, if liberals can show that most Hispanic immigrants are actually very hard working (e.g. see Ted Conover’s book, Coyotes – they do jobs which most of us would never do) much conservative antipathy towards various groups might dissipate.  Indeed, while much of the media makes it seem that Americans support efforts by people in Arizona to expel illegal immigrants, there are also findings like this CNN poll:

Eighty-one percent of people questioned in the poll say they support creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. for a number of years to stay here and apply to legally remain in this country permanently if they had a job and paid back taxes, with 19 percent opposed to such a plan.

- Ravi Iyer



Also read...