People from different economic classes have fundamentally different ways of thinking about the world, according to research recently published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
The authors of the study said the findings have important, but overlooked, implications for public policy.
“Americans, although this is shifting a bit, kind of think class is irrelevant,” said Dacher Keltner of the University of California-Berkeley, who cowrote the article with Michael W. Kraus of UC-San Francisco and Paul K. Piff of UC-Berkeley.
“I think our studies are saying the opposite: This is a profound part of who we are.”
A study published in Psychological Science in November, for instance, found that people of upper-class status have trouble recognizing the emotions other people are feeling. People of lower-class status do a much better job.
“What I think is really interesting about that is, it kind of shows there’s all this strength to the lower class identity: greater empathy, more altruism, and finer attunement to other people,” Keltner said.
“One clear policy implication is, the idea of nobless oblige or trickle-down economics, certain versions of it, is bull,” Keltner added. “Our data say you cannot rely on the wealthy to give back. The ‘thousand points of light’—this rise of compassion in the wealthy to fix all the problems of society—is improbable, psychologically.”
Those in the upper-class tend to hoard resources and be less generous than they could be.
But the differences between people of upper and lower-classes seems to be the product of the cultural environment, not ingrained traits. Studies have found that as people rise in the classes, they become less empathetic.
Keltner speculates that people of lower-classes are more empathetic because they need to rely on others more often to be successful. Those who can’t afford daycare service for their children, for example, turn to neighbors or relatives to watch the kids.
“If you don’t have resources and education, you really adapt to the environment, which is more threatening, by turning to other people,” he explained. “People who grow up in lower-class neighborhoods, as I did, will say,’ There’s always someone there who will take you somewhere, or watch your kid. You’ve just got to lean on people.’”