Believe it or not, despite their sometimes dense arguments and arcane vocabularies, academic papers can be fascinating.
A couple of months ago, at lunch with a former colleague, he referred to a paper that sounded intriguing, and I asked him to send me a link. Given the number of books and papers I tend to amass, I just got to it–and my initial impression was confirmed.
The lead author is Paul K. Piff, a Professor at the University of California at Irvine, and the title of the paper is “Having less, giving more: The influence of social class on prosocial behavior.”
The authors began by sketching out fairly widespread assumptions about folks who occupy a lower social class, which they define in terms of socionomic status. In other words, poor people. They note that poor people have access to fewer resources, face greater exposure to threat, and experience a reduced sense of personal control, and they observe that, given these life circumstances, many people expect lower class individuals to “engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others.”
The authors’ researched a related, but different, hypothesis. They investigated whether poorer individuals might “orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments” and they examined evidence to determine whether such an orientation exists and if so, whether it gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. (In the excerpt below, I’ve removed the copious citations.)
Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.
The degree to which those who enjoy abundant resources should
act altruistically toward others is a contentious issue within moral
frameworks and political philosophies.
In the present research, we examine how social class influences
prosocial behavior. Relative to their upper class counterparts,
lower class individuals have fewer economic resources; fewer educational opportunities; less access to social institutions such as
elite schools, universities, and social clubs;
and subordinate rank in society relative to others.
Moreover, people with lower class backgrounds often face increased stress in their close relationships and violence in their homes. In the face of these life circumstances, lower class individuals might be expected to be more focused on their own welfare, prioritizing their own needs over the needs of others.
An emerging body of research points to an alternative hypoth-
esis: Despite experiencing life stressors on a more chronic basis,
lower class individuals appear to be more engaged with the needs
of others. Relative to their upper class counterparts, lower class
individuals are more dependent on others to achieve their desired
life outcomes, more cognizant of others in their social environ-
ment, and more likely to display other-oriented nonverbal behaviors.
The article proceeds to outline the four studies referenced, and to test their hypothesis by measuring the effect of social class on “core aspects of the construct”– objective
indicators of material resources (i.e., income): and subjective perceptions of social class .
In both correlational and experimental designs, using university, community, and nationwide samples that represented a range of social class backgrounds, controlling for plausible alternative explanations (e.g., reli-
giosity, ethnicity), we explored the effects of social class on
generosity (Study 1), charitable donations (Study 2), trust (Study
3), and helping behavior.
There’s a lengthy explanation of the methodologies employed in each of these studies, and discussions of the findings and implications at the link. But the bottom line was clear: The evidence strongly suggested that social class does shape what the authors call “people’s prosocial tendencies” and that “having less leads to giving more.”
So much for noblesse oblige and the stereotype of the generous rich. Turns out poor folks really aren’t Romney’s “takers”…
Most of the national debate over income inequality and the enormous gap between the financially fortunate and everyone else focuses on the extensive privileges enjoyed by the wealthy, including the immensely greater influence that monied folks exert on policy–in contrast to the multiple barriers faced by people whose incomes are barely adequate (or inadequate) to cover life’s necessities.
This paper–and the numerous studies cited by its authors–suggests another reason to be concerned about our present levels of inequality. If we want a kinder, gentler, more compassionate society, populated by citizens who behave in a pro-social manner, pursuing policies that further enrich the already wealthy is definitely not the way to go.