Study finds socioeconomic class impacts psychological mentality

Emilie Raguso/Courtesy
Paul Piff

The divide between upper and lower classes is not only a difference in income but also the cause of distinct psychological mentalities in the two groups, according to a recent article by social psychologists from UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.

A collaboration of researchers — which included the article’s authors as well as others from Stanford University and the University of Toronto — conducted a series of studies examining how different levels of wealth impacted the thought processes of individuals, particularly in their interactions with other people and in the levels of empathy the individuals demonstrated.

The article, published in the August issue of the scientific journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, found that wealthier people tended to be less empathetic and generous than lower-class individuals.

Through their experiments, co-authors Paul Piff, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley in social and personality psychology, and Michael Kraus, a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Francisco, said they found a marked difference in reactions and behaviors based on socioeconomic class.

“This research … suggests that our material lives have a profound and somewhat surprising influence on our psychology and our behavior,” Kraus said in an email.

According to Piff, a number of studies were conducted to look at different examples of generous behavior and social interactions between people. To define subjects’ social classes, researchers looked at a variety of factors, such as how much money they made, their occupations or where they ranked themselves on a social hierarchy, Piff said.

In one experiment where researchers videotaped two strangers’ interactions as they spoke to each other, they found that wealthier individuals were more likely to be disengaged in conversations with others, while lower-class people tended to be more generous and empathetic and were better at reading emotions, he said.

Nancy Adler, a professor of psychology at UCSF, said the results of the studies are what she would have predicted based on her own research, which looks at the effects of social class on mental and physical health.

“We’ve done a study where people perceive themselves on a social hierarchy,” Adler said. “Usually if you’re lower on the hierarchy you’re very attuned to people, whereas if you’re on top, you’re not looking down as much.”

Piff said the results dispute the notion that wealthier members of society are obligated and more inclined to share their money with the less fortunate. A more likely outcome of the income gap would be increased gaps between the two classes, he said.

“There are (upper-class) people who are really generous, and I don’t want to undermine the huge contributions that certain individuals have made, but … that doesn’t erase the trend across households,” Piff said.

According to Piff, after subjects experienced heightened feelings of compassion by watching a video of children in unfortunate circumstances, the differences go away.

Additionally, poorer people made to feel wealthier showed decreased levels of empathy and pro-social behavior and vice-versa, which he said proves that the psychological cultures constructed could be modified.

“All that goes to show is it’s really people’s sense of how much they have relevant to others that’s driving these patterns,” Piff said. “If you identify what those factors are and modify them, reduce the gaps between people, remind them of the needs of others, you can eliminate those differences.”

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