Ruby Payne and the Art of the Cold Reading


Ruby Payne is an author, consultant, and former educator who “empowers educators and community leaders to address issues of poverty in classrooms, communities, businesses, hospitals, churches, and social services.” 

Her work is largely centered around three key ideas:

First, that different economic classes are really different cultures: there is a poverty culture, a middle class culture, and a wealth cultures. There’s a little sub-idea here, too. According to Payne, some poor people live in generational poverty and other poor people live in situational poverty. People who are generationally poor are part of a long line of poor people, and therefore tend ot also participate in poverty culture. People who are situationally poor just happen to not have enough money right now, but might still carry their middle-class or wealth cultures with them.

Second, what really holds poor people back is not the fact that they don’t have enough money, but their poverty culture. People who live in poverty culture don’t have the right cultural tools to get out of poverty and stay there. So, according to Payne, if you gave a bunch of money to someone who lives in generational poverty, they would just keep playing by the rules of that culture, squander the money, and end up back in poverty.

Third, that the key to helping someone escape poverty isn’t giving them money, but teaching them to overcome the hidden rules of their poverty culture and adopt the hidden rules of middle class culture. It’s the class version of respectability politics.

Most people have never heard of Ruby Payne, but her work is incredibly popular in schools, social services organizations, and other institutions that have have to deal with the effects of poverty—real, economic, not-having-enough-money poverty—on a day-to-day basis.

And, recently, a version of a table that she created to help people understand the differences between poverty culture, middle-class culture, and wealth culture has been making the rounds on social media. The version in one of Payne’s books is a little more robust, but this one captures the general ideas well enough:

A version of Ruby Payne's table

There are three columns: one for poverty culture, one for middle class culture, and one for wealth culture. There are ten rows (I’m hoping that the other five that are in Payne’s book are on part of the page we can’t see), each for a specific part of life. For example, the family structure row tells us that poverty culture is matriarchal, middle class culture is patriarchal, and wealth culture is based-on-who-has-money-archal. Similarly, the language row tells us that poor people use the casual register, middle class people use the formal register with a focus on negotiating, and wealthy people use the formal register with a focus on networking.

Anyway, someone grabbed a printed copy of the table at a workshop or something and posted it to the internet, so it was going around. Some people were criticizing it. Other people were saying that it resonated. And the people who were saying that it resonated came from a variety of professions and a variety of backgrounds. They were clergy and teachers and social services professionals, they had grown up in poverty and in the middle-class and maybe even in some relative wealth.

I was struck by the idea that it resonated so well… because of course it did. Payne has been roundly criticized for using outmoded and superficial ideas (like the idea that there is a culture of poverty) and for trading in stereotypes (like the idea that people living in poverty value education as an abstraction, people in the middle class value education as a step on the road to success, and wealthy people favor education as a way of maintaining social connections). The table certainly deals in stereotypes—the one I just mentioned is straight from the table—and stereotypes often resonate. After all, if they didn’t resonate, they wouldn’t survive as stereotypes.

But it the table doesn’t resonate just because it’s a list of stereotypes. In fact, most of the ideas in the table barely rise to the level of a stereotype. It resonates because each box in the table is a broad generalization that could apply to almost anybody. It resonates because it’s the sociological equivalent of cold reading.

Cold reading is a magic trick—or, when used by less scrupulous people, a bit of con artistry—where the ‘reader’ makes it look like they are discerning specific things about a specific person when, in fact, they are just making general statements, seeing how the person who they are reading responds, and then narrowing things down. 

For example, a ‘psychic’ might say, “I see a woman with darkness in her chest… lung cancer, heart disease, breast cancer… it’s foggy.” And the person being read—who probably wants the psychic reading to connect them with someone—might respond with, “Yes. Yes. My Aunt Maggie had breast cancer!” The odds are pretty good that anyone will know a woman who had a chest-oriented disease. The psychic makes a general statement about that and the person being read fills in the details. Thanks to some oddities of human psychology, the person being read may even misremember the reading and believe that the psychic told them about Aunt Maggie’s cancer without being prompted!

The point is that it’s easy to ascribe insight to general statements. If I tell you that you have a tendency to be critical of yourself, that probably sounds pretty accurate. But it doesn’t sound accurate because I have any special insight into your personality. After all, you’re reading this on the internet; I’ve probably never even met you. It’s just that the vast majority of people are sometimes self-critical. It sounds plausible because I put the general idea in your head and you filled in the details.

Similarly, if I said that wealthy people tend to think about time in terms of the future, that probably sounds pretty plausible. Wealthy people do things like watch the markets for opportunities, make investments, create estate plans, and do all sorts of other future-oriented things. I could even take it further. I could say that poor people think about time in terms of the past and tradition: they do the things they do because they’ve always done them that way, they have trouble adapting to new things, they spend their whole lives in the same community, and so on. And I could say that middle class people think about time in terms of the present moment: they are always looking ways to make the most of things right now, even uprooting their whole lives to move for a better job!

And all of that is true to a degree… because we are all sometimes past-oriented, present-oriented, or future-oriented. As individuals, some of us might be tend towards one of those than the others. And circumstances might sometimes push us into one way of thinking (in fact, in a sense, scarcity really does tend to make us focus more on the present and the immediate future). But there’s nothing cultural there. It’s just a universal human experience to think about the past, the present, and the future. And that means that it rings true when Payne writes that poverty culture is oriented towards the present, middle class culture is oriented towards the future, and wealth culture is oriented towards the past and its traditions. It’s just that it rings true because it is true in the most trivial sense.

My favorite example of this isn’t on the version of the table that’s going around social media. At least, it’s not on the portion of that table that we can see. But it is in Payne’s book Bridges Out of Poverty. According to Payne, poverty culture finds humor in people and sex, middle class culture finds humor in situations, and wealth culture finds humor in social faux pas. That categorization is so vague that it’s useless! A lot of humor—from Jeff Foxworthy and Bill the Cable Guy to Chaucer and Shakespeare—involves situations involving people, sex, and social faux pas. The idea that one of these things is more predominant among a certain class is utterly ridiculous.

The really important thing is that the table isn’t meant to be descriptive any more than statements made by a fake psychic are meant to be descriptive. The psychic isn’t trying to describe anything when he talks about a woman with darkness in her chest. Instead, he’s giving the person being read a lens through which to see things. He is saying, basically, “Think about someone who this phrase might fit.” And, of course, the person being read—especially if they are desperate to find a way to interpret the world—will do just that. 

The table is meant to do something similar; to say: “When you meet someone in poverty, interpret them this way: their driving force is relationships, they believe that their situation is fated and that they can’t do anything about it, they believe that money is there to be spent, etc.” And people in churches and schools and social services agencies—people who really do care about folks who are living in poverty… and who are desperate for a way to interpret the world—fill in the details and do just that.

The problem, of course, is that poverty is much simpler (it’s about not having enough money) and much more complex (it involves entrenched social systems that keep people from getting enough money). And a table like this—a table that provides answers that are that most common of combinations: simple and wrong—can do such a good job of keeping us from looking at the truth. After all, it’s kind of fun, and maybe even a little comforting, to be fooled by the mentalist, by the psychic, by the magician, even if it’s just for a moment.


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