Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Science analyzes class warfare

New psychological research confirms the rich truly are different, and potentially dangerous.

By Ish Theilheimer
Straight Goods
Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Here's an August news item you might have missed amidst the sensational goings-on during what are normally news "dog days". A new academic study reveals what makes rich people different from the rest of us — and dangerous. The findings by University of California social scientists Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Dacher Keltner have great political potential.. They discuss their study in Social Class as Culture, in the August edition of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Wealthier people, their work shows, tend to be lacking in empathy. People who come from a lower-class background have to depend more on other people.

Many of the bad things happening to people today are happening because some very wealthy people wanted things that way.

"If you don't have resources and education, you really adapt to the environment, which is more threatening, by turning to other people," Keltner says. "People who grow up in lower-class neighborhoods, as I did, will say, 'There's always someone there who will take you somewhere, or watch your kid.' You've just got to lean on people."

Wealthier people don't have to rely on each other as much, resulting in differences that show up in psychological studies. People from lower-class backgrounds are better at reading other people's emotions, say the researchers, and more likely to act altruistically. "They give more and help more. If someone's in need, they'll respond," Keltner says.

As part of the study, observers watched one-minute videos of transactions between strangers and were able to accurately judge the subjects' economic status within 60 seconds. Privileged ones checked cellphones constantly, doodled, and avoided eye contact in conversation. Lower-class subjects tended to nod their heads, laugh with, and pay more overall attention to the people with whom they talked.

The study points to dangerous tendencies among the rich. "What wealth and education and prestige and a higher station in life gives you is the freedom to focus on the self." Keltner says. "In psychology experiments, wealthier people don't read other people's emotions as well. They hoard resources and are less generous than they could be." Statistics on charitable giving repeatedly confirm this. Poor provinces and neighbourhoods consistently outgive wealthy ones.

Speaking personally, as a former band musician, we always knew that poor people could be counted upon to put out a lavish banquet for their guests at parties where we played. With rich people we'd be lucky sometimes to get cheese with the crackers. Everyone who isn't rich has many such stories to tell.

If you, like Keltner, grew up poor — or you are poor — your reaction to all this is likely to be "Duh! Tell me something I didn't know."

But there is something new here, though. It's proof the wealthy people, their motives, and their politics, are not to be trusted. You could also say it provides scientific evidence for the long-overdue revival of class warfare. This kind of research can be used to tap into the suspicion people ought rightly feel toward the callous super-rich who have shaped the world to suit them alone, while letting the rest of us go to hell.

Look at major current issues through this lens, and the focus shifts.

Why did the super-rich and their phony populists force the US debt-ceiling crisis this summer? Because the rich don't care about anyone else.

Why the rush to extract more climate-changing, dirty tar sands oil when clean, job-producing alternatives exist that don't kill people and animals and spread widespread environmental ruin? Because rich investors and their companies don't give a rat's ass about anyone else or the mess they'll leave behind for millennia.

Why shut down or gut public services? Because rich people don't want to share and learned early that, unlike the rest of us, they have the "freedom to focus on the self."

As we see, this kind of upbringing can result in the most dire consequences.

Progressives have become too namby-pamby, always trying to appeal to everyone. If you knock on enough doors for enough progressive candidates, you realize, after a while, that there are some doors just not worth the effort, much less the risk of getting bitten by guard dogs. Most of these are the doors to the fanciest, biggest homes. Rather than trying to find consensus with these folks, we're better off tapping into the resentment everyone else feels toward undeserved privilege.

It's good to be loving, hopeful, and optimistic, but it's also important to point out that many of the bad things happening to people today are happening because some very wealthy people wanted things that way. The export of good jobs to sweatshop countries, for instance, was their idea. It's not unfair or overly negative to ask about new ideas in politics and government "Does this help everyone or just the rich?" and to consistently expose the shameless voices of wealthy self-interest.

SGNews is not calling for a purge. It's not that all wealthy people are bad people, but they do, in most cases, need to redeem themselves. Look at billionaire Warren Buffet, who, in August, declared that the rich need to pay more taxes to bring national and world finances into order in a New York Times article entitled Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.

"My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress," wrote the American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist. "It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice."

That's the kind of language and action we need from the wealthy. We need to see evidence from those privileged enough to have money. We have to reject the myth of the "self-made man" and keep in mind that most wealthy people had privileged backgrounds and almost all have benefited enormously from public institutions, from education to tax breaks.

Reshaping the dialogue as Warren Buffet has done merits a lot of redemption. Many rich people can be helped to live good lives that do not depend on entitlements, breaks and special perks others don't get.

As for the others, they and their politics are indeed are problem for all decent-minded, hard-working people and progressives should not be afraid to make this point central to our politics.

Ish Theilheimer is founder and president of Straight Goods News and has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine,, since September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of He lives wth his wife Kathy in Golden Lake, ON, in the Ottawa Valley.

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