Poor Top Wealthy In Detecting Suffering
December 21, 2011 by UPI - United Press International, Inc.
BERKELEY, Calif., Dec. 21 (UPI) — Ebenezer Scrooge’s lack of compassion in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a common trait among those in the upper classes, U.S. researchers say.
Lead author Jennifer Stellar, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, found people in the lower socioeconomic classes are more physiologically attuned to suffering, and quicker to express compassion, than the more affluent.
The study, published in the journal Emotion, found individuals in the upper middle and upper classes were less able to detect and respond to the distress signals of others.
“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” Stellar said in a statement. “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 said the findings challenge previous studies that have characterized lower-class people as being more prone to anxiety and hostility in 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.
In one experiment, 64 participants viewed two videos — one on construction and the other an emotionally charged story about families coping with a child with cancer. Participants showed no differences watching the “neutral” instructional video, but all reported feeling sad watching the cancer video.
However, members of the lower class reported higher levels of compassion and empathy, as distinct from sorrow, and showed greater decreases in heart rate than upper-class participants as they watched the cancer family video.
“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.”