Schools often quite openly affirm the idea that, because you are better, you are not governed by the same dynamics as everyone else. They celebrate their astonishingly low acceptance rates and broadcast lists of notable alumni who have earned their places within the nation’s highest institutions, such as the Supreme Court. I heard these messages constantly when I attended St. Paul’s, one of the most exclusive New England boarding schools, where boys and girls broke rules with impunity, knowing that the school would protect them from the police and that their families would help ensure only the most trivial of consequences.
This narrative of the exceptional student rests on a fiction with pathological consequences: Economist Raj Chetty has shown that children whose parents are in the top 1 percent of earners are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than are the children of poorer parents — meaning that, in cases like this, admission is less about talent and more about coming from the right family. In that way, privilege casts inherited advantages as “exceptional” qualities that justify special treatment. No wonder that, when the poor lie, they’re more likely to do so to help others, according to research by Derek D. Rucker, Adam D. Galinsky and David Dubois, whereas when the rich lie, they’re more likely to do it to help themselves.
Such selfish tendencies extend well beyond the way the privileged use untruths to their advantage.