Social Class Matters

The rich don't understand other people.

Posted Dec 06, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The rich are different than you and me.
Ernest Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.
- apocryphal exchange

One of the important realizations by psychology researchers over the past few decades is that it is important to take into account whether research participants are males or females, Black or White or Latino or Asian, and older or younger. There was a time when basic demographic characteristics like these were not always reported in a research report, presumably reflecting an assumption that "human nature" was monolithic and adequately captured by studying White male college students at elite schools.

It turns out that this was a terrible assumption, and psychology as a field has improved itself greatly by diversifying its data base and offering more nuanced conclusions from given research studies.

The trend should continue.

So, Nansook Park and I in a recent article called on psychology researchers at least to mention the cities where their participants happen to live because city of residence also matters.

And here is one more important characteristic for psychologists to take into account: social class, whether rendered as educational attainment, occupational status, or income. Other social science disciplines such as anthropology and sociology have shown that social class is indeed a basic contrast among people with far-reaching consequences for how we think, feel, and act. Psychology researchers - with exceptions of course - have been slow to add social class to the "must" list of important human contrasts.

Why the hesitation? Here I am speculating, but maybe the continued reliance on college student samples in effect limits many studies to those of middle and upper-middle class participants, resulting in insufficient variation to learn much that is interesting. Maybe psychologists think they are studying social class when they focus on presumably more proximal influences on behavior that stem from social class, like discrimination, limited opportunities, and trauma. And in fairness to psychology researchers, social class can be challenging to ascertain, especially among college student research participants. I know because I have tried to do this myself in past studies with quick-and-dirty questions. Many participants were unwilling or unable to report their family income. And when I simply asked participants to assign themselves to a social class, from lower to upper with several stops in between, most everyone said they were from the middle class, whether they were the children of physicians or those of welfare recipients. An interesting result, to be sure, but not one that allowed me to investigate social class.

A final reason, perhaps, for the reluctance to study social class by psychologists is the widespread - and often correct - belief among psychologists that poor people simply have it tougher than rich people, with understandable negative effects on their behavior.

A recent study by psychologists Michael Kraus, Stéphane Côté, and Dacher Keltner is therefore especially interesting, not only because it explicitly studied social class as an independent variable but also because it showed that those from the lower class actually do better than those from the upper class.

These researchers studied empathic understanding, the ability to infer accurately the emotions of other individuals. In several studies with both college students and community residents, they showed that those from lower classes were more skilled at reading the emotions of others than those from upper classes. Their assignment of participants to social class relied on more appropriate strategies than the quick-and-dirty ones mentioned above.

Kraus and colleagues explained their results by saying that lower-class people, because they are less in charge of their lives than those from the upper class, need to be better at reading other people. After all, their well-being depends on it.

Fair enough - I agree. But from the point of view of positive psychology, I will put an additional spin on this program of research. Lower-class people have notable strengths and assets. Goodness, we should not rationalize poverty on these grounds. But we should recognize that those of us in the upper-middle class - e.g., research psychologists - have something to learn from those less economically fortunate than us.

If social class influences a psychological ability as basic as empathy, social class should be studied with respect to other positive psychological characteristics. Further research is needed! Urgently.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The rich are different than you and me.
Christopher Peterson: Yes, they don't understand other people.
- another apocryphal exchange


Kraus, M. W., Côté, S., & Keltner, D. (2010). Social class, contextualism, and empathic accuracy. Psychological Science, 21, 1716-1723.

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