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Studies of Behavior, Class, and Power

Among the topics in this web site, there is concern about the further concentration of power among only a few, the rich elite who control the capital in our capitalist system, and the lack of accountability on their actions. There is a popular relevant cliché, absolute power corrupts absolutely, a quote credited to Lord Acton around 1887.

There have been academic studies of human behavior that relate in some manner to this common belief, a number of very notable ones in just the past few years. Before some of the other site essays, I had known of the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison study but I was unaware of the other studies described below. There are studies about: submission to authority, behavior when assuming a powerful position, comparisons in behaviors by class (where those in the upper class show less empathy for others than those in the lower class).

Here are several links about the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments in 1961, a test of obedience to authority. The tendency to follow orders from an authority figure apparently corrupts that person's empathy for one being punished. The implication is someone in power will find those who will follow his/her orders, as was seen in Nazi Germany; that historical observation was a significant influence on Stanley developing this experiment.

Here are several links about the Philip Zimbardo 1971 study of the prisoner and guard roles, including an interview, and a slide show. The power of the prison guard role was observed to corrupt that person's ethics. The implication is those in power might behave with less empathy for those who must submit to their authority.

Here is a link about a 2003 study (Dacher Keltner and Cameron Anderson from UC Berkeley, Deborah Bruenfeld from Stanford U) examining how power influences behavior.

Power, Approach, Inhibition (pdf)

The abstract:

    This article examines how power influences behavior. Elevated power is associated with increased rewards and freedom and thereby activates approach-related tendencies. Reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint and thereby activates inhibition-related tendencies. The authors derive predictions from recent theorizing about approach and inhibition and review relevant evidence. Specifically, power is associated with (a) positive effect, (b) attention to rewards, (c) automatic information processing, and (d) disinhibited behavior. In contrast, reduced power is associated with (a) negative effect; (b) attention to threat, punishment, others' interests, and those features of the self that are relevant to others' goals; (c) controlled information processing; and (d) inhibited social behavior. The potential moderators and consequences of these power-related behavioral patterns are discussed.

Here is a link to an article from 2010 (Paul Piff, Michael Kraus, Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley, Stephane Cote and Bonnie Hayden Cheng from U of Toronto) found, across four studies, lower class individuals tend to be more generous, trusting, and helpful compared with their upper class counterparts.

Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior (pdf)

The abstract:

    Lower social class (or socioeconomic status) is associated with fewer resources, greater exposure to threat, and a reduced sense of personal control. Given these life circumstances, one might expect lower class individuals to engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others. The authors hypothesized, by contrast, that lower class individuals orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments and that this orientation gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. 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. Implications for social class, prosocial behavior, and economic equality are discussed.

Here is a link to an article from 2011 (Jennifer Stellar, Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley, Vida Manzo of Northwestern U, Michael Kraus of UC San Francisco) that examines class-based differences in compassion, implying lower class individuals are more attuned to thers distress, compared to those in the upper class.

Class and Compassion: Socioeconomic Factors Predict Responses to Suffering (pdf)

The abstract:

    Previous research indicates that lower-class individuals experience elevated negative emotions as compared with their upper-class counterparts. We examine how the environments of lower-class individuals can also promote greater compassionate responding - that is, concern for the suffering or well-being of others. In the present research, we investigate class-based differences in dispositional compassion and its activation in situations wherein others are suffering. Across studies, relative to their upper-class counterparts, lower class-individuals reported elevated dispositional compassion (Study 1), as well as greater self-reported compassion during a compassion-inducing video (Study 2) and for another person during a social interaction (Study 3). Lower-class individuals also exhibited heart rate deceleration - a physiological response associated with orienting to the social environment and engaging with others - during the compassion-inducing video (Study 2). We discuss a potential mechanism of class-based influences on compassion, whereby lower-class individuals are more attuned to others' distress, relative to their upper-class counterparts.

Here is a link to an article from 2012 (Michale Kraus of U Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Paul Piff, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Michelle Rheinschmidt and Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley) examines how class affects behavior (how the rich are different from the poor).

Social Class, Solipsism, and Contextualism: How the Rich are Different from the Poor (pdf)

The abstract:

    Social class is shaped by an individual's material resources as well as perceptions of rank vis-a-vis others in society, and in this article, we examine how class influences behavior. Diminished resources and lower rank create contexts that constrain social outcomes for lower-class individuals and enhance contextualist tendencies - that is, a focus on external, uncontrollable social forces and other individuals who influence the personal freedoms of upper-class individuals and give rise to solipsistic social cognitive tendencies - that is, an individualistic focus on one's own internal states, goals, motivations, and emotions. Guided by this framework, we detail 9 hypotheses and relevant empirical evidence concerning how class-based contextualist and solipsistic tendencies shape the self, perceptions of the social environment, and relationships to other individuals. Novel predictions and implications for research in other socio-political contexts are considered.


Here are links about a 2012 study (Paul Piff, Daniel Stancato, and Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley, Stephane Cote and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton from U of Toronto) regarding unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals. Apparently for those individuals, greed is good, and perhaps cheating is more acceptable for them than for those in a lower class.

Here is the news from UC Berkeley at the time of the paper being published. I could not find the entire article online.

Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior

The abstract:

    Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals' unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

This 2012 article (Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley, Daniel Stancato of Seattle, Andres Martinez of George Mason U, Michael Kraus of U Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) encompasses five studies about class.

Class, Chaos, and the Construction of Community (pdf)

The abstract:

    Chaotic conditions are a prevalent and threatening feature of social life. Five studies examined whether social class underlies divergent responses to perceptions of chaos in one's social environments and outcomes. The authors hypothesized that when coping with perceptions of chaos, lower class individuals tend to prioritize community, relative to upper class individuals, who instead tend to prioritize material wealth. Consistent with these predictions, when personally confronting chaos, lower class individuals were more communally oriented (Study 1), more connected with their community (Study 2), and more likely to volunteer for a community-building project (Study 3), compared to upper class individuals. In contrast, perceptions of chaos caused upper class individuals to express greater reliance on wealth (Study 4) and prefer financial gain over membership in a close-knit community (Study 5), relative to lower class individuals. These findings suggest that social class shapes how people respond to perceptions of chaos and cope with its threatening consequences.

This 2013 study (Michael Kraus of U Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley) tested whether upper class individuals would be more likely to endorse the theory social class is based on genetically based, biological differences, which could lead to less support for rehabilitation of offenders rather than punishment.

Social Class Rank, Essentialism, and Punitive Judgment (pdf)

The abstract:

    Recent evidence suggests that perceptions of social class rank influence a variety of social cognitive tendencies, from patterns of causal attribution to moral judgment. In the present studies we tested the hypotheses that upper-class rank individuals would be more likely to endorse essentialist lay theories of social class categories (i.e., that social class is founded in genetically based, biological differences) than would lower-class rank individuals and that these beliefs would decrease support for restorative justice - which seeks to rehabilitate offenders, rather than punish unlawful action. Across studies, higher social class rank was associated with increased essentialism of social class categories (Studies 1, 2, and 4) and decreased support for restorative justice (Study 3), and the association between social class rank and class-based essentialist theories was explained by the tendency to endorse beliefs in a just world (Study 2). Implications for how class-based essentialist beliefs potentially constrain social opportunity and mobility are discussed.

Another topic often mentioned in this site is group dynamics, such as the tactic of 'divide and conquer' or 'us vs them' to set one opposing group outside of another.

Regarding that topic, a relevant study about group behaviors was done in the from 1954 to 1961, called the Robbers Cave Experiment (Muzafer Sherif, OJ Harvey, B Jack White, William Hood, Carolyn Sherif). This study involved separating boys into two groups, first getting each group comfortable, second setting the two groups to be in competition thereby leading to antagonism, and then third trying to get everyone together again. There were three experiments along these lines, with the first having the result of the boys ganging up on a common enemy and in the second having the result of the boys ganging up on the experimenters.

The book is available online:

Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment

There are a number of political trends currently concentrating wealth among only a few, creating a small upper class ruling over a much larger population having a decreasing middle class and a growing lower class. As the various academic studies have concluded the upper class behaviors are less prosocial, the clear implication is conditions for the rest will only continue their deterioration. As the most wealthy have stored several trillion dollars of wealth in offshore accounts, this also means their next generation will be born into that privilege, with the expected, less desirable behaviors exhibited in the various studies above.

created - Jan. 2014
last change - 04/04/2016 delete link with broken link

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