Lower classes quicker to show compassion in the face of suffering

By Yasmin Anwar

(Medical Xpress) -- Emotional differences between the rich and poor, as depicted in such Charles Dickens classics as “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” may have a scientific basis. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that people in the lower socio-economic classes are more physiologically attuned to suffering, and quicker to express compassion than their more affluent counterparts.

By comparison, the UC Berkeley study found that individuals in the upper middle and upper classes were less able to detect and respond to the distress signals of others. Overall, the results indicate that socio-economic status correlates with the level of empathy and compassion that people show in the face of emotionally charged situations.

“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Jennifer Stellar, lead author of the study published online on Dec. 12 in the journal, Emotion. “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.”

Stellar and her colleagues’ findings challenge previous studies that have characterized lower-class people as being more prone to anxiety and hostility in the face of adversity.

“These latest results indicate that there’s a culture of compassion and cooperation among lower-class individuals that may be born out of threats to their wellbeing,” Stellar said.

It has not escaped the researchers’ attention that the findings come at a time of rising class tension, expressed in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Rather than widen the class divide, Stellar said she would like to see the findings promote understanding of different class cultures. For example, the findings suggest that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds may thrive better in cooperative settings than their upper-class counterparts.

“Upper-class individuals appear to be more self-focused, they’ve grown up with more freedom and autonomy,” she said. “They may do better in an individualist, competitive environment.”

More than 300 ethnically diverse young adults were recruited for the UC Berkeley study, which was divided into three experiments that used three separate groups of participants. Because all the volunteers were college undergraduates, their class identification – lower class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class or upper class – was based on parental income and education.

In the first experiment, 148 young adults were rated on how frequently and intensely they experience such emotions as joy, contentment, pride, love, compassion, amusement and awe. In addition, they reported how much they agreed with such statements as “When I see someone hurt or in need, I feel a powerful urge to take care of them,” and “I often notice people who need help.” Compassion was the only positive emotion reported at greater levels by lower-class participants, the study found.

In the second experiment, a new group of 64 participants viewed two videos: an instructional video on construction and an emotionally charged video about families who are coping with the challenges of having a child with cancer. Participants showed no differences while watching the “neutral” instructional video, and all reported feeling sad in response to the video about families of cancer patients. However, members of the lower reported higher levels of compassion and empathy as distinct from sorrow.

The researchers also monitored the heart rates of participants as they watched the neutral and emotionally charged videos. Lower-class participants showed greater decreases in heart rate as they watched the cancer family 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.”

Finally, a new set of 106 participants was randomly divided into pairs and pitted against one another in mock interviews for a lab manager position. To further raise the stress level in interviews, those who performed best were to win a cash prize. Post-interview reports from the participants showed that the lower-class interviewees perceived their rivals to be feeling greater amounts of stress, anxiety and embarrassment and as a result reported more and sympathy for their competitors. Conversely, upper-class participants were less able to detect emotional distress signals in their rivals.

“Recognizing is the first step to responding compassionately. 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,” Stellar said.

Other coauthors of the study are UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner; Michael Kraus, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at UCSF; and Vida Manzo, a researcher in social psychology at  Northwestern University. The study was funded by grants from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and the McNair Scholars Program.

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Nanobanano
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 20, 2011
Well of course.

Wealthy people are like, "Well, lazy bums should have tried harder."
ryggesogn2
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 20, 2011
Another class warfare 'study'.
Hayek had it pegged decades ago.
rawa1
3 / 5 (6) Dec 20, 2011
Another class warfare 'study'. Hayek had it pegged decades ago.
Such labelling will help anybody, only the panellists. The phenomena just exists or don't exist. Everything else is propaganda and religion. In particular, I don't consider all wealth people insensitive because they didn't face the suffering in their life, but many of them are wealthy, just because they're insensitive psychopats.
ryggesogn2
2.3 / 5 (6) Dec 20, 2011
t many of them are wealthy, just because they're insensitive psychopats.

Labeling? Jealous?
Most wealthy DID face hardship in their life, but they overcame that and prospered, and didn't whine or play the victim as the govts encourage today.
rawa1
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 20, 2011
Labeling? Jealous?
...and they tend to rationalize their lack of mercifulness...
ryggesogn2
2.3 / 5 (6) Dec 20, 2011
"They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they havent had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives."

"Because all the volunteers were college undergraduates, their class identification lower class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class or upper class was based on parental income and education. "
One major flaw in all such studies, the participants are college students and have not earned their wealth.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (4) Dec 20, 2011
Most wealthy DID face hardship in their life,

Then, by that logic, the wealthy are more callous.

But the age of the self-made man is long gone. Today the rich are mostely inheritors of fortunes.

But the study highlights an important aspect: The closer your situation is to that of someone else the better you can empathize with them.
ryggesogn2
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 20, 2011
But the age of the self-made man is long gone. Today the rich are mostely inheritors of fortunes.

Bull
The closer your situation is to that of someone else the better you can empathize with them.

They were all college students. What do they know?

Then, by that logic, the wealthy are more callous.

Why? They donate more of their wealth to projects that are effective, not govt.
If all those wealthy demand to be taxed more why don't they donate to the US govt? They know THEIR money will not be used effectively. Even in 'liberal' MA, few choose to be taxed at the higher rate.
Pirouette
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 26, 2011
I think it's another example of junk science. . . .especially coming out of UC, Berkeley.
from the article: ""Overall, the results indicate that socio-economic status correlates with the level of empathy and compassion that people show in the face of emotionally charged situations.""
That is a bald-faced lie. A person's degree of empathy and ability to feel, whether rich, poor or middle-class are most often determined by his/her upbringing such as family values and degree of morality instilled in him. A rich person who shows no kindness to others is, invariably , someone whose family also showed no kindness to others. It is a learned process, although a rich person can break out of that mold if he comes to understand that something is wrong with his family. The point is that people CAN change and most often do change if it is within them to do so. It has nothing to do with richness or poverty. It has more to do with altruism.
Pirouette
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 26, 2011
Many of the poor and middle class also can show no sign of empathic behavior, e.g. the homeless man who will steal another homeless man's shoes and socks rather than going to a Goodwill center for donated shoes and socks. Rich people more often inculcate in their children the need to be charitable to others and to be honest. The dishonest and emotionless rich man is the exception and not the norm. This study doesn't take into account the individualism of all people, no matter in which group the belong. The point also is that a poor man can become rich if he chooses to do so the right way by working hard toward that goal. And a rich man can become poor if he neglects things important to his own life. Inheritance has little to do with a person being honest or deceitful. . .but even the best of families, rich or poor, can have one family member that chooses to turn out badly.