Tall poppy syndrome hits ‘those who deserve it’

Australians like to see tall poppies cut down to size – but usually when we feel their good fortune has not been deserved, according to a psychologist speaking at the Australian Psychological Society Annual Conference in Canberra today.

Emeritus Professor Norman Feather, a Fellow of the APS, pioneered the study of ‘tall poppies’ two decades ago with research on those factors that influence people’s beliefs about whether tall poppies should be rewarded or cut down to size.

He said: ‘If a person has low status themselves, or is lacking in self-esteem, they are more likely to want to see ’tall poppies’ cut down, as are those who place a high value on equality. There are some parallels with voting patterns , with Liberal voters slightly less likely than Labor voters to want to see high status individuals fall and more likely to want to see them rewarded.’

But Professor Feather, from Flinders University, said it was not just success, but the means by which it was achieved, that predicted whether a person attracted the disapproval of others.

He explained: “Our studies showed that a very important factor that influenced attitudes towards ‘tall poppies‘ was if they were perceived to be deserving of the high status they had, such as if they had worked hard for their success. People resented a ‘tall poppy’s’ success if it was seen as undeserved and they were more satisfied when the ‘tall poppy’ suffered a downfall.”

Professor Feather has found that, contrary to perceptions, the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is not just an Australian trait, but is found across many cultures. He said: ‘My research shows that Americans are similar to Australians in their attitudes towards ‘tall poppies ’, except that they report a greater respect for the self-made individual and are more inclined to believe that ‘tall poppies’ should be rewarded. Compared to Australians, Japanese students have stronger beliefs that those who stand out above the group should be cut down to size.

Professor Feather’s early research on ‘tall poppies’ has led him to a new research focus on how different emotions such as resentment, sympathy, and guilt relate to beliefs about deservingness. The emotions he is studying also include schadenfreude, or delight in another person’s misfortune. His research shows that this kind of pleasure is associated with resentment about another person’s previous undeserved advantage and with the belief that the other person deserved the misfortune.

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