During Hurricane Katrina, many white, middle-class Americans were puzzled that so many New Orleanians “chose” to stay despite evacuation orders and reports of impending disaster. As then-Department of Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff said, “The critical thing was to get people out of there before the disaster. ... Some people chose not to obey that order. That was a mistake on their part.”

As people know now, most of those who stayed in New Orleans did so because they had no choice. They had no transportation, funds or friends in other states, or they had to stay to care for others who didn’t have the means of escape, said Stanford University psychologist Hazel Rose Markus, PhD, in an APA Annual Convention address on choice.

“You have to look at people’s contexts to understand what they can actually choose,” she said.

This is just one example of the choice-centeredness of white, middle-class Americans, said Markus. For this segment of the population, the ability to choose freely from among many alternatives is central to one’s identity and daily life. But that ideal simply isn’t important to most of the rest of the world, and it can result in misunderstanding — as was the case for Katrina survivors — between policymakers and their constituents.

A case in point: One study Markus and colleagues conducted after Katrina found that middle-class Americans tended to view the people who left New Orleans as good decision-makers and “in control,” while they viewed the people who stayed as passive. The study also found that people who saw choice as central to their identities tended to be less charitable, less sympathetic toward others and more likely to blame victims, Markus added.

In another study, Markus and her colleagues found that middle-class participants see choice-making as an important expression of their identity. The researchers asked middle-class and working-class participants how they would feel if they bought a car and then found that their friend had bought the same one. The middle-class students reported they’d be a little miffed. In sharp contrast, people from working-class backgrounds said they’d be happy about it.

“Working-class people thought it was kind of cool, saying, ‘Yeah, let’s start a car club,’” said Markus.

In fact, white, middle-class Americans are so focused on choice, Markus said, that they take note of and remember more of their daily decisions. In a study published in March in Psychological Science (Vol. 21, No. 3), Markus and her colleagues had Indian and American students complete a lab task in which they made several choices, including which cubicle to sit in, whether to use a pen or pencil, and whether to eat candy from a dish. At the end of the experiment, the students tried to remember how many choices they had made. The American students estimated they’d made twice as many as the Indian students. In a second study, the researchers found that when asked to count the number of choices they made in a day, American students tallied twice as many incidents as Indian students. The results suggest that choice feels central to white, middle-class Americans’ everyday lives, Markus said.

In a related study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 93, No. 5), Markus and her colleagues asked people in malls and airports which of five pens they preferred. Half of the time, they allowed participants to take that pen home with them, but the other half of the time, they said: “I’m sorry, you can’t have that pen. It’s the last of its kind that we have,” and gave the participants a different pen. As expected, the middle-class participants who were able to choose their own pens were happier than participants who couldn’t take home the pens they wanted, while working-class participants were equally happy with either pen.

The finding isn’t surprising, given the fact that working-class Americans are more accustomed to being affected by circumstances beyond their control, while middle-class Americans are more often able to exert control over many details of their lives, Markus said. That’s not a trivial difference — it’s one that can result in culture shock for international and first-generation college students, Markus added.

“Working-class students don’t yet think of themselves as masters of the universe,” she said.

By emphasizing choice, universities may be undermining first-generation college students’ success, according to a study by Markus and Nicole Stephens, PhD, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University. The researchers had groups of working-class and middle-class students read “choice-focused” welcome messages from Stanford University’s website that urged them to “Take the world’s ideas and make new ones,” and said, “Your academic adviser is a compass, not a roadmap.” Other groups of students read a message that emphasized the campus community and group decision-making.

After reading the choice-focused messages, the working-class students did less well on anagram completion and puzzle tasks than working-class students who had read the community-focused message and middle-class students in both conditions.

“Extensive choice orientation could be undermining our working-class students’ performance and be a hidden factor in first-generation students’ underperformance,” Markus said.

Given these findings, Markus hopes that universities will provide students with more guidance about selecting courses or majors. Professors should also not expect all of their students to be as outspoken about their opinions and ideas as their white, middle-class American students are.

“In my freshman seminar, one of my students came to me and said, ‘This class is really interesting to me, but where do those students get all those opinions?’” Markus recalled. “He knew these other students had these opinions coming out of their mouths all the time, and he just didn’t have those opinions yet and wondered if there was a place you could shop for them. But, of course, this is a legacy of a middle-class family. If that hasn’t been your background, you have to learn how to do it.”