Billionaire David Tepper once called himself a "middle-class dad trapped in a rich man's body." Most millionaires, it turns out, have similar feelings of wealth denial.
A majority of millionaires polled describe themselves as middle class or upper middle class despite being among the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, according to the results of the third CNBC Millionaire Survey.
Fully 44 percent described themselves as middle class, and 40 percent said they were upper middle class. Only 4 percent described themselves as wealthy or rich, and 5 percent described themselves as upper class. (Tweet this)
Even those Americans worth $5 million or more—among the wealthiest 5 percent—still think of themselves as more middle class than wealthy. According to the survey, 49 percent of those worth $5 million or more define themselves as upper middle class, while 23 percent define themselves as middle class. Only 11 percent of the $5-million-plus millionaires define themselves as rich or wealthy.
Wealth experts say the findings stem partly from the psychology of today's wealthy and partly from the growing economic divide between the super rich and the merely wealthy.
Studies show that more than three-quarters of today's millionaires made their money themselves and started out in the middle class or lower. Wealth experts say these self-made millionaires may still see themselves as having middle-class values of hard work, humility and family despite their increased wealth.
Today's wealthy, like many Americans, also look up the economic ladder when comparing themselves to others rather than down. And the super rich are far outpacing millionaires when it comes to wealth creation, making the mere millionaires feel like the middle class by comparison.
A study last year by Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman, assistant professor at the London School of Economics and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, found that those in the bottom half of the top 1 percent have seen their national wealth remain flat for the past 20 years. But the 0.01 percent—or those worth more than $100 million—have seen their share of wealth more than double since 1995, from around 5 percent to just under 12 percent.
George Walper, president of Spectrem Group, which conducted the survey for CNBC in March, said today's wealthy also want to avoid being labeled as wealthy because of the cultural hostility toward the rich.
"The majority of wealthy Americans are those that really don't want you to know how wealthy they are," Walper said. "It's a very small percentage of people who want to be out front in the media. Most of them say, 'I'm just a Main Street American.'"
The survey polled 750 Americans worth $1 million or more.