The Psychology of Intragroup Class: how Socioeconomic Status Impacts Ambition

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This work proposed to investigate important and otherwise relatively distinct lines of research to provide a more complete understanding of how an individual’s ambition is rooted in their everyday university experiences. To summarise, the hypothesis that individuals who more frequently experience distinctive treatment would have a stronger sense of value and worth among university students (Perceived Intragroup Status), and that this would predict greater university-related ambition was supported. However, the hypothesis that individuals who more frequently experience distinctive treatment would have a stronger sense of connection and belonging among university students (Perceived Intragroup Belonging), and that this would predict greater university-related ambition was only partially supported.

The results demonstrated, as expected that distinctive treatment was a significant predictor of both intragroup status and belonging. Findings are consistent with Begeny et al., (2020) who demonstrated that distinctive treatment provides an opportunity to not only communicate dignity and respect, informing belonging but also a chance to convey awareness and gratitude for one’s distinct group-relevant abilities, talents and thoughts, informing status. This point is important because previous research argues that it is through a sense of both perceived status and belonging that individuals thrive and can develop a healthy and robust self-concept (Horsey & Jetten, 2004). The relationship was stronger for intragroup status than it was for belonging. This finding is consistent with Begeny et al., (2020) and supports their suggestion, that while developing a sense of connection and inclusion is important, there seems to be something particularly strong about the individual perceiving their value and worth through the actions of other group members (Begeny et al., 2020).

Consistent with the predictions, results revealed that feelings of value and worth from distinctive treatment (Perceived Intragroup Status), predicted high levels of ambition. Findings are consistent with previous work that suggests that when individuals feel that they have a distinct sense of value and worth in their groups, it leads the individual to develop a more robust identification with that group (Blader & Tyler, 2009). Consequently, the individual becomes motivated to facilitate the achievement and success of the group by engaging in ambitious behaviour (Blader & Tyler, 2009; Tyler & Blader, 2002). No previous work has examined status and belonging together concerning ambition. As status was a significant predictor of ambition while controlling for belonging, the current research adds credence to previous work by demonstrating that perceived status is a key component in giving rise to ambition.

Interestingly, contrary to predictions, results revealed that high levels of perceived intragroup belonging from distinctive treatment did not predict significant levels of ambition. In some ways, findings go against Cheyran et al., (2009), who demonstrated how high levels of perceived belonging encourages the individual to engage in behaviour reflective of high levels of ambition, through increasing their motivation to pursue a particular professional or academic domain and by increasing their incentive to work hard and perform well (Cheryan et al., 2009; Cheryan & Plaut, 2010).

In other ways, the findings do not go against this research because the current study only assessed university-related ambition. To thrive in an academic discipline, it is vital that individuals feel that they are competent (Blaskova, Blasko & Kucharcikova, 2014). To feel competent, an individual has to believe that they have the necessary skills and abilities required to achieve goals, accomplish tasks and perform to a high standard (Blaskive, 2011; Plaminek & Fiser, 2005). This belief is more likely to emerge as the result of perceiving a distinct sense of value and worth in a group compared to whether the individual believes that they are included or accepted members of a group. This is proposed because status is predicted from others calling upon that individual to provide group-relevant assistance. This conveys to the individual that they have particular abilities and characteristics that the group values, which make them, feel competent. Those who have high status are viewed to be more competent, which in turn leads the individual to believe they are competent (Durante et al., 2013). Therefore, this may explain why there was no significant relationship between belonging and ambition relating to university-related ambition.

Research, which demonstrates that belonging is involved in ambition, has mainly examined it in the context of career ambition or when an individual is deciding whether to enter an academic domain (Cheryan et al., 2009; Cheryan & Plaut, 2010). In other words, research has not focused its involvement on belonging in students within their university subjects. Arguably, in these other contexts, it is just as crucial for individuals to feel accepted and included in order to succeed as it is for them to feel competent. Therefore it is not that belonging is not involved in ambition it just may not be as relevant in the context that it was researched here. It is important going forward that research uses the model to study more than one type of ambition. Doing this will help to determine the multiple different ways that status and belonging influence ambition whilst also demonstrating whether belonging is implicated to be involved in ambition in other areas.

Alternatively, because this research had to rely on a relatively small, convenience sample, it may have limited its ability to discern more reliable associations between belonging and ambition that otherwise may have existed. Future research should do a necessary statistical power analysis before data collection to avoid underpowered research and determine whether belonging is in fact implicated to be involved in a university-related ambition, albeit not as strong as status (Zhang, 2013).

Strengths, Limitations

A strength of the research was the variety of participants, which involved students from distinct groups of study across several universities in the UK. Strict inclusion criteria meant that active university students could specifically be targeted. Thus the results lend to high external validity and so greater generalisability of results to the UK student population. An additional strength is the internal consistency of perceived intragroup status; this was in the excellent range when Cronbach’s alphas were calculated (George and Mallery, 2003).

Another strength is that this research is the first to test this specific model. Previous work is limited for not fully integrating these theoretical constructs. The research provides a useful framework to integrate otherwise relatively distinct lines of research to provide a more comprehensive understanding of ambition. Testing status and belonging together concerning ambition, and demonstrating that they showed different results, provides evidence that they are separate facets of group life and how individuals feel about themselves. Controlling for the covariates gender and year of study, and that neither were significant, leads to increased accuracy of the relationship between the variables in the model (Salkind, 2010). Further, the model demonstrated the importance of distinctive treatment and some of the broader implications for ambition through status.

However, the study had several limitations. The cross-sectional nature of the research prevents any causal claims from being made. Despite this, the directionality of some paths is backed up by previous experimental data. For example, distinctive treatment and intragroup status and belonging (Begeny & Huo, 2017; Greenaway, Haslam, Cruwys, Branscombe, Ysseldyk & Heldreth 2015; Simon & Sturmer, 2003; Smith, Tyler & Huo 2003), as is intragroup status and ambition (Blader & Tyler, 2009), and intragroup belonging and ambition (Cheryan et al., 2009). Nonetheless, future research should investigate the directionality of these pathways altogether.

The current research depended on participant’s self-reports of perceived status and belonging within groups. This could lead to biases in the responses of participants as they may give socially desirable answers to questions rather than honest ones (Van de Mortel, 2008). Nonetheless, it is essential to recognise that self-reports of intragroup status and belonging are typically correct since they align with other group members’ perceptions (Anderson, Srivastava, Beer, Spataro & Chatman, 2006). However, future research should assess these constructs using different methods that help confirm the accuracy of self-reports, such as peer evaluations.

Again, the work used self-reports of how frequently an individual experienced distinctive treatment. Debatably, an individual’s impressions of how other individuals treat them mean the most; this is because it mirrors one’s genuine experience (Adler, Epel, Castellazzo & Ickovics, 2000). Nonetheless, any future work must broaden the current research by witnessing other group member’s communications of distinctive treatment towards the individual.

Implications and future directions

A generally accepted view is that what organisations, institutions, and other social groups need to do most importantly is provide their members with fairness and respect, in part reflecting the awareness that such treatment is vital to promoting belonging (Begeny et al., 2020). However, for individuals to thrive and create a strong and healthy self-concept, which is arguably the result of belonging but also status, it is just as important for individuals to develop a sense of distinct value and worth in the group (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004). The current findings demonstrate how providing distinctive treatment in everyday interactions facilitates a way of promoting status and belonging, and some of the broader implications this has for ambition. Therefore, these findings alongside adequate future research (which also demonstrates belongings involvement) can be used by organisations, institutions, and other social groups to target interventions that focus on increasing the motivation, achievement and, performance of individuals by highlighting the importance of providing distinctive treatment.

The present research used only a university student sample within a university context. Future research should investigate this model in other social groups, such as employees in work organisations. This would help determine whether the broader model has any empirical value by determining whether it is robust across several different social groups. Further, it would determine whether belonging is a significant predictor of ambition, which previous research indicates it to be outside university students within their degree subjects.

focus have been positive: Future work should investigate being treated in a distinctively negative way and the broader implications this has for ambition. Individuals might receive a type of unfriendly treatment because they are viewed not to have any respected abilities to offer (inferring low intragroup status). This could result in the individual not engaging in ambitious behaviour because they do not form the necessary identification with the group (Tyler & Blader, 2003). Alternatively, the individual may be viewed to have useful attributes but still receives adverse treatment because they are not liked, and so others purposely decide not to ask them for advice (inferring low intragroup belonging). A lack of perceived belonging has been shown to prevent individuals from entering a domain where they would otherwise have succeeded because of the perception that they will not succeed (Cheryan & Plaut, 2010). Understanding this could help to explain why certain individuals in social groups are believed to lack ambition. For example, it is often suggested that women are under represented and fail to reach top positions in companies because they lack ambition (Zillman, 2016; Whitehead, 2013). However, by demonstrating that ambition is a function of how individuals are treated could provide an alternative explanation of the under representation. However, it should be noted that all of these ideas are post hoc interpretations and therefore are only conjecture.


The present research aimed to provide a more complete understanding of how an individual’s ambition is rooted in their everyday university experiences. The research suggests that distinctive treatment plays a vital role in determining both perceived intragroup status and belonging in groups. In turn, this sense of status had important implications for giving rise to ambition. Whilst the research failed to demonstrate a significant relationship between belonging and ambition, the current study only examined university-related ambition. Therefore it is important for future research to consider the relationship between belonging and ambition in a different social group, to determine whether a relationship between belonging as well as status, gives rise to ambition.

This research is the first to test this specific model and provides preliminary support for the relationship between distinctive treatment, intragroup status, and ambition. However / although the findings do not confirm or test the directionality of these processes, and no significant relationship between belonging and ambition was found. Collectively the novel findings, alongside suitable future research of the proposed model, provides a useful framework that demonstrates that in order to make individuals feel motivated to succeed, achieve highly and effectively fulfill goals, individuals have to feel ambitious. “Ambition is the driving force behind human achievement” (Webb & Chafer, 2015). It is the keystone to success and is therefore an invaluable attribute to possess (Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller, 2012). In order for individuals to maximise their potential, organisations institutions and other social groups have to concentrate on making individuals in the group feel that they belong (included and accepted) and have status (distinct sense of value and worth) in the group. This is achieved through the function of distinctive treatment. 

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The Psychology Of Intragroup Class: How Socioeconomic Status Impacts Ambition. (2021, Dec 28). Retrieved June 15, 2024 , from

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