Americans may tend to think theirs is a classless society, but new research confirms that social class influences the way we think and act, and how we view the world.
Experts believe social class extends beyond our income bracket, reflecting the clothes we wear, the music we like, who we hang out with, and how we interact with others.
According to the authors of a new article in Current Directions in 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.
“Americans, although this is shifting a bit, kind of think class is irrelevant,” said psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner, who cowrote the article with Dr. Michael W. Kraus and Paul K. Piff, a graduate student at the University of California, 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 said.
“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. The authors believe this causes differences that show up in psychological studies.
Researchers also suggest people from lower-class backgrounds are better at reading other people’s emotions, and that they are more likely to act altruistically.
“They give more and help more. If someone’s in need, they’ll respond,” Keltner said. 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.
Upper-class people are different, Keltner said.
“What wealth and education and prestige and a higher station in life gives you is the freedom to focus on the self,” he said. 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.
Keltner believe these inherent differences influence public policy, or perhaps the fractious debates that are currently causing a stalemate in our government.
One implication of this, Keltner said, 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 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.”
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.
Other research has 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.