Turns out, the rich really are different. But not necessarily in he ways we assume.
Though economically privileged, people from upper-class backgrounds consistently display deficits in empathy, social engagement, generosity and sensitivity compared to those from the lower classes. The differences in behaviour are so marked that even unschooled observers are able to detect a person's socioeconomic background based on 60 seconds of interaction.
The findings, published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, have researchers concluding that wealth comes at considerable personal cost - and that being poor isn't without its rewards.
"There's this sense among people that all problems reside in the lower classes," says report co-author Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley. "While some of that is true - they are more prone to diseases of every kind, and suffer health problems because of the difficulties in their lives - the research also points to all these wonderful strengths: greater empathy, greater altruism, greater sensitivity to others and greater attunement to the social world."
In one experiment, for example, observers were able to accurately judge education and income levels solely from watching a one-minute videotaped interaction between two strangers.
Cues to privilege included checking a cellphone during the conversation, doodling and avoiding eye-contact, while lower-class individuals - whom Keltner notes "turn to social connections to survive" - were prone to headnodding, laughter and overall attentiveness.
The report draws from years of class studies using participants of diverse ages, incomes, educations and upbringings. The findings on empathy, altruism and compassion are considered robust, having been replicated by nearly a dozen studies.
The tendency for the rich to hoard their resources was of particular interest to researchers, who conclude that "the idea of noblesse oblige or trickle-down economics ... is bull" because the upper classes aren't reliably giving back.
Statistics Canada reports that while wealthier families donate more money to charity in absolute terms, those earning less money donate a higher percentage of their income.
In 2007, donors with annual household incomes of less than $20,000 gave an average 1.6 per cent of their pre-tax earnings to charity, compared to just 0.5 per cent for donors with household incomes topping $100,000.
Lindsey Vodarek, communications manager for Imagine Canada, an advocacy group working on behalf of charities, says "this pattern has remained consistent over the last decade."
According to the Current Directions study, the divide is rooted in fundamental differences in thinking between the haves and have-nots.
While lower-class upbringings encourage people to lean on others, ask for help when needed, and to offer help in return, Keltner says those raised in upper-class backgrounds are imbued with greater permission to "focus on the self" and consider their opportunities to have been earned.
Keltner observes that such notions of entitlement and "old Protestant work ethic" don't lend themselves to offering hand-outs.
"If we're serious about reducing inequality - which I think is one of the most important problems facing the western world today - we can't just rely on the instinctual generosity of people who are wealthy. Because we're not finding it," says Keltner, author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
Of course, not all rich people are self-centred and greedy, and poorer families aren't universally benevolent and sensitive.
But the broad-strokes message is clear that socioeconomic background continues to have significant effects on culture, despite popular sentiments to the contrary.
"People think class is disappearing, and that it's something only crazy monarchs from European history cared about," says Keltner.
"But don't think for a minute that we live in a class-free society."
Wealthy really are different, and not in a nice way: study (external - login to view)