Study finds income level affects coping mechanisms

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When facing a chaotic situation, people with higher incomes may be more likely than people with lower incomes to find comfort in material possessions.

A study conducted in part by researchers in UC Berkeley’s Department of Psychology has found that when chaotic conditions undermine a person’s sense of control, upper-class individuals tend to hold on to material possessions to regain that control while lower-class individuals tend to reach out to others in their society for support.

“We’ve run lots and lots of psychological studies showing these really different behaviors between the haves and have-nots,” said Paul Piff, a post-doctoral scholar in psychology at UC Berkeley and co-author of the paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Aug. 13. “This study takes everything that we have seen so far and maps it onto how people of different socioeconomic backgrounds deal with crises differently.”

Researchers also found that people from higher-income backgrounds were more likely to choose jobs based on their potential for wealth and prefer financial gain over a close-knit community, and they were less likely to volunteer for community-building projects than people from lower-income backgrounds.

In one experiment, Piff said, all subjects were given a choice between a higher-paying job that required them to move away from their family and a lower-paying job that was closer to their family.

In another, college students were asked to list both chaotic — such as classes being cancelled — and nonchaotic events in their college experience, Piff said. The researchers then assessed the subjects on how connected they felt to their community.

“We still saw this split, suggesting that social upbringing particularly in times of threats plays a huge role in people’s responses,” said Piff. “There are different sets of values and priorities that are embedded in different social steps.”

A study co-authored by Piff published in February found that upper-class individuals have a higher propensity for unethical behavior due to more favorable attitudes toward greed. Piff said he is currently trying to figure out why wealthier people, who are expected by society to be the most helpful in times of crisis, want to hold on to their money.

“Very basic situational variables or interventions can go a long way to decreasing the ‘empathy divider’ – the compassion divider between the haves and have-nots,” said Piff. “We want to figure out how these people can become more compassionate.”