Class is still written into our psychology – working class folk are more empathic, selfless, vigilant and fatalistic

By Alex Fradera

Social class may seem different today than in the early 20th Century. Former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s comment in 1997 that “we are all middle class now” had a ring of truth, given that most people in the West have access to what once were luxuries, such as running water, in-house entertainment, and eye-catching brands. But this is something of an illusion, according to Cardiff University’s Antony Manstead, who shows in the British Journal of Social Psychology (open access) how class is still written into our psychology, and the implications this has for how we behave and our wellbeing.

First, Manstead presents evidence that shows socio-economic status (based on income and educational attainment – not identical with class, but an overlapping concept that’s used in much of the relevant research) remains as important to people’s identity as factors like gender or ethnicity. This is truer for wealthier people than lower earners suggesting some eroding of a positive working-class identity. 

Apart from obvious class markers like clothing, our behaviour is also still a giveaway: lab studies show that working-class people are more likely to employ eye-contact, laughter and head nods when interacting with others, compared to a more disengaged non-verbal style from the middle/upper classes. And class can be read at greater than chance levels even from stimuli as basic as Facebook photographs or seven words of speech. So we feel a certain class, and others can detect that class fairly easily.

What are the psychological consequences of this awareness of social class? Manstead describes how working class people are more likely to consider the world as a mass of forces and risks to contend with and accommodate, which manifests in various ways including their measurably higher levels of vigilance and a heightened threat detection system. This makes sense if you lack some of the resources (e.g. rich parents) that can buffer you from catastrophe, but may also reflect limiting beliefs. Meanwhile, middle/upper-class people are more motivated by internal states and personal goals. They are more solipsistic, on average: the issue is how they should shape the world, not how it pushes back on them. This is indicated by a higher sense of perceived control, and more confidence that good things happen to people due to their choices.

For working class people, this approach to the world has personal downstream consequences, including a higher degree of fatalism towards serious life outcomes, such as contracting HIV. These attitudes may also contribute to greater illness susceptibility: one study found that people exposed to a cold or flu virus and held in quarantine were more likely to become ill if they considered themselves as a lower status social class, even while controlling for their actual class and levels of wealth.

Meanwhile, the costs of the middle and upper-class approach seem to be externalised on the society at large. Put bluntly, the research that Manstead amasses suggests that those with of a higher socioeconomic class are less empathic, have more favourable attitudes towards greed, and are more likely to lie in negotiations. Merely thinking about yourself as higher up the status ladder leads to more selfishness. One can see how a solipsistic view could lead to these attitudes. In contrast, the contextual, real-world focus of lower-class people leads to empathy and a greater ability to see how external events may be shaping the emotions of other people. In addition, they have a greater degree of interdependent relationships and higher levels of social engagement.

One would think social mobility might bridge this psychological gap between the classes, sliding more socially-minded people into positions of influence. Higher education is meant to be one of the engines of social mobility, but people from lower social classes are more likely to report feeling like a fish out of water at university, or to perceive the opportunities available to them as second-rate. Although it ought to be possible to address these anxieties about the unfamiliar, research suggests that the culture of universities may not be designed with the working classes in mind. University deans and administrators asked to list qualities of their culture tended to endorse words more about independence – the natural state of the solipsistic upper-class person, charting their course into the future – than interdependence, which tends to be a particular priority for first-generation university goers, looking to give back to their community. Manstead notes that these same cultural factors are also likely to be present in many workforces and professions.

So “the system” has a psychological component that helps maintain the status quo. Yet there is an appetite for change: in surveys of nationally representative samples, including the wealthy, people repeatedly express a preference for a more equal society. There is even some evidence that greater equality can flip some of the negative trends described about the middle and upper class, leading them to be more, rather than less generous in some economic tasks (perhaps because they feel less entitlement and sense of threat in a more equal society). And the good news is that studies show that giving people an accurate picture of their socioeconomic standing, or telling them that inequality is rising, leads them to being more receptive to change.

The psychology of social class: How socioeconomic status impacts thought, feelings, and behaviour

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

24 thoughts on “Class is still written into our psychology – working class folk are more empathic, selfless, vigilant and fatalistic”

  1. This is odd. A small study (back around 1960?) in London seemed to show the exact opposite. People emerging from a large train station were secretly videotaped as they were approached by a stranger asking a neutral question. Very consistently middle class commuters smiled and made eye contact, while working class commuters did neither. Has something changed? Is class no longer congruent with income and years of schooling? Or is it harder than it looks to judge other people’s mindset and manners?

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    1. Very interesting. The research cited in this review is here:
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19076316
      and the results are clearly different. I also wonder though whether here there are status connotations. Making and holding eye contact with unfamiliar people is a high-status move, and may be avoided by people of lower SES. Perhaps the middle class commuters felt more confident and in control in this situation? In the Kraus/Keltner study, people were specifically involved in interactions, so the social context is a little different. Nonetheless it’s food for thought. Let us know if you get hold of the study!

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    2. Joe – I think that higher self confidence rather than friendliness is likely to be strong factor in that study. Also 1960 is long enough ago that working class people were often brought up with the notion of ‘knowing one’s place’, so many would be reticent around people they considered of higher socio economic class (as a researcher would always have been at that time).

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  2. Evolutionary influences continue to shape our adaption to our environment. I am not talking about genetics (they are only part of the explanation), but of cross generational cultural transmission of attitudes and social norms and social- contagion effects, that get overridden or reinforced by in-group loyalties and stereotypical self- identity.

    The hierarchical nature of human tribal organisation persists under the upturned-umbrella of the normal- curve- of- population-distribution.

    In any environment, (be it university, political arena, health, geographical location, economic location, workplace), there will exist a hierarchy that reflects where individuals place themselves, as well as where others place them, in terms of being ‘winners’, ‘losers’ or somewhere along the spectrum of adaptation to that environment.

    In Western societies, money is power, status, influence and control. Those higher up the hierarchy will employ tactics that maintain their position and preferably advance it even at the expense of others. This typifies individualistic, selfish, Western culture. This striving for evolutionary advantage may be,for example expressed, in the ‘upper’ spectrum end- people needing to have fewer offspring because they stand a better chance of getting to breeding age than offspring of a poorer person who might live in a location where child mortality is higher, where healthcare is struggling to cope with demand or where lower quality/ability staff work because the area does not appeal to care staff who are able to get better remunerated work elsewhere, perhaps in the private sector. Individualistic cultures invariably blame the poor for their inability to raise themselves up or to look after themselves better, without providing the means to facilitate their doing so. This is both deliberate and a consequence of ‘the way things are’. If poor people have no power, money or influence, they not only stay poor, powerless and non- influential, but because of in-group identity, may inadvertently perpetuate their situation, transmitting attitudes across generations.in a social self- fulfilling prophesy.

    These ‘poverty traps’ (e.g. ghettos’) keep the poor where their chances of upsetting the hierarchical- status quo is of minimal consequence. The university system, state religions, the public school system (of which I have direct experience) are both deliberately and unconsciously set -up to favour the ‘haves over the ‘have- not’s and maintain the ideology where no- one dare challenge the status quo even when the elephant in the room is so vast it is un -missable. the psychology of silence and denial in human society fascinates me.

    Look at any anthropological study of tribal organisation or zoological study of primates and it becomes apparent that for all our arrogant rhetoric, how little evolutionary distance humans have travelled.

    I commend the rather underrated work of the zoologist Desmond Morris in his book The Human Zoo (1969). Some of his conclusions seems a little apocalyptic, until you start to make links between what evolutionary and social psychologists have discovered since about what happens when vast numbers of people are forced to live in close and unnatural proximity to one another in a planetary- wide super-hierarchy which has its origins in a time when the maximum number of relationships our brains can cope with, is about 150.

    Evolution is not something that stopped a few thousand years ago. It is happening right now. The striving for evolutionary advantage, hardwired into our very bodies and being, means that the more flexible thinkers, the more optimistic, open to experience, and behaviourally – adaptive, win over the entrenched, fatalists, the powerless and fearful.

    This has consequences for the fabric of our society. Migrants represent the ‘best’ their country of origin has to offer because they are clearly the most adaptive to rapid change in environment. Inequality of opportunity is what imprisons and prevents change.

    If we want to make ‘level playing fields’ for all people, we must overcome our default, evolutionary advantage- chasing ways and adopt a more ‘holistic’, collectivistic approach to the organisation of our world. From ‘those to whom much is given is much expected’ in terms of taking care of those incapable of adapting and enabling those who can, to adapt to rapidly changing environments.

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    1. Was the psychological makeup/character/IQ/environment and other pertinent data of each individual in all socioeconomic groups taken into account? This study seems so “cookie-cutter”. Sociopaths, psychopaths, those with anti-social personality disorders are spread throughout all classes and those who are higher functioning tend to have the natural ability to class climb as they lack empathy, a barely-there conscience or no conscience at all. That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the data that should be required before releasing any “findings”. The medical profession in the U.S. has been stuck in “cookie-cutter” mode and not taking into account the vast amount of variables that exist between people that makes up their sum. A research project is being funded by the U.S. government (thank you taxpayers!) to get data from at least 1 million “Partners”, U.S. citizens ages 18+ to create a huge database over at least a 10 year period that all in the medical field can access. Another words, working towards getting away from the “cookie-cutter” approach to treating patients as if they are all the same. The research program is called , enrollment has been open for a few weeks. I got on board myself as a bucket list item of “doing something in your life that is bigger than yourself”..Those who are higher functioning tend to have the natural ability to class climb as they lack empathy, a barely there conscience or no conscience at all. I can tell you right now, I’ve met plenty of working class that lack empathy and a healthy conscience. Several have Narcissistic Personality Disorder and most are just lower functioning sociopaths in general. I call that lot Neanderthals. Forget “classes”. Empathic people with healthy consciences are dispersed among all of them. The cookie-cutter approach is lame and shows a lack of evolution in psychiatry as it did in physical medicine.

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  3. The last paragraph is interesting in how it says that wealthy people claim they want an equal society. What people say they want and what they really want can be very different things, and also their definitions of ‘equality’ can vary massively. For example, believing that poor people are poor because they are lazy or inbred etc.

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  4. Interesting that some of the traits ascribed to ‘working class’ participants are similar to those typically ascribed to women – empathy, selflessness, vigilance… – and to so-called ‘collective’ cultures in general. I suspect these are characteristics of groups (and individuals) with less power who feel a need to be ‘nice’ and to gain approval and respect, rather than feeling automatically entitled to it, and who need to act collectively because ‘the power of one’ is simply not available to them.

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  5. Interesting. I mistook the title at first, thinking it was going to be about the field of Psychology still being so influenced by class…which to a great extent it is. If you want to be a Clinical Psychologist for example, you must be able to fund a doctorate. I’m a forensic psychologist and come from a working class background. I wouldn’t be working in this job I love if it wasn’t for my employer paying for my MSc and BPS qualification. The qualities good psychologists require are of course evident in people across all backgrounds and classes but seems a shame Psychology rules out so many who have the appropriate nature and thinking for it but can’t due to money/class and is more densely populated with individuals from middle to upper class.

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