The depiction of the rich and cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” is backed up with scientific evidence, according to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.
The researchers found that people in lower socio-economic classes are more physiologically attuned to the suffering of others than their middle- and upper-class counterparts.
“It’s not that the upper-classes are coldhearted,” UC Berkeley social psychologist Jennifer Stellar, lead author of the study published the journal Emotion, explained. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”
The study was based on three experiments conducted on more than 300 ethnically diverse young adults.
Participants from lower-classes reported feeling greater levels of compassion than their more affluent counterparts. But they reported feeling the same amount of joy, contentment, pride, love, amusement and awe.
Lower-class participants also reported feeling higher levels of compassion and empathy when they watched an emotionally charged video about families who are coping with the challenges of having a child with cancer. The differences were not just psychological, lower-class participants actually had a lower heart rate when viewing the video than upper-class participants.
“One might assume that watching someone suffering would cause stress and raise the heart rate,” Stellar said. “But we have found that, during compassion, the heart rate lowers as if the body is calming itself to take care of another person.”
Lower-class participants were also more likely to feel compassion for their rivals during mock interviews. Upper-class participants, on the other hand, were less able to detect emotional distress signals in their competitors.
“Recognizing suffering is the first step to responding compassionately," Stellar said. "The results suggest that it’s not that upper classes don’t care, it’s that they just aren’t as good at perceiving stress or anxiety."
The current study builds upon a similar one published in Psychological Science in 2010. That study 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.
“Americans, although this is shifting a bit, kind of think class is irrelevant,” Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley said in August, only a month before the "Occupy Wall Street" movement would bring economic inequality to the public's attention. “I think our studies are saying the opposite: This is a profound part of who we are.”
Keltner has argued that people from lower classes have fundamentally different ways of thinking about the world than people in upper classes.
But the differences between people of upper and lower-classes seems to be the product of the cultural environment and social factors, not ingrained traits. Studies have found that as people rise in the classes, they become less empathetic.
“One clear policy implication is, the idea of nobless oblige or trickle-down economics, certain versions of it, is bull,” Keltner said. “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.”