class is more than just how much money you have. It's also the clothes
you wear, the music you like, the school you go to -- and has a strong
influence on how you interact with others, according to the authors of a
new article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a
journal of the Association for Psychological Science. People from lower
classes have fundamentally different ways of thinking about the world
than people in upper classes -- a fact that should figure into debates
on public policy, according to the authors.
although this is shifting a bit, kind of think class is irrelevant,"
says 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."
People who come from a
lower-class background have to depend more on other people. "If you
don't have resources and education, you really adapt to the environment,
which is more threatening, by turning to other people," Keltner says.
"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.'"
Wealthier people don't
have to rely on each other as much. This causes differences that show up
in psychological studies. People from lower-class backgrounds are
better at reading other people's emotions. They're more likely to act
altruistically. "They give more and help more. If someone's in need,
they'll respond," Keltner says. When poor people see someone else
suffering, they have a physiological response that is missing in people
with more resources. "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,"
he says. Of course, there are also costs to being lower-class. Health
studies have found that lower-class people have more anxiety and
depression and are less physically healthy.
are different, Keltner says. "What wealth and education and prestige and
a higher station in life gives you is the freedom to focus on the
self." In psychology experiments, wealthier people don't read other
people's emotions as well. They hoard resources and are less generous
than they could be.
One implication of this, Keltner says, is
that's unreasonable to structure a society on the hope that rich people
will help those less fortunate. "One clear policy implication is, the
idea of nobless oblige or trickle-down economics, certain
versions of it, is bull," Keltner says. "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
The ability to rise in class is the
great promise of the American Dream. But studies have found that, as
people rise in the classes, they become less empathetic. Studies have
also found that as people rise in wealth, they become happier -- but not
as much as you'd expect. "I think one of the reasons why is the human
psyche stops feeling the need to connect and be closer to others, and we
know that's one of the greatest sources of happiness science can
study," Keltner says.
The article is entitled, "Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm."