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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 inequality are discussed.
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.
Recent research suggests that lower-class individuals favor explanations of personal and political outcomes that are oriented to features of the external environment. We extended this work by testing the hypothesis that, as a result, individuals of a lower social class are more empathically accurate in judging the emotions of other people. In three studies, lower-class individuals (compared with upper-class individuals) received higher scores on a test of empathic accuracy (Study 1), judged the emotions of an interaction partner more accurately (Study 2), and made more accurate inferences about emotion from static images of muscle movements in the eyes (Study 3). Moreover, the association between social class and empathic accuracy was explained by the tendency for lower-class individuals to explain social events in terms of features of the external environment. The implications of class-based patterns in empathic accuracy for well-being and relationship outcomes are discussed.
Power increases the tendency to behave in a goal-congruent fashion. Guided by this theoretical notion, we hypothesized that elevated power would strengthen the positive association between prosocial orientation and empathic accuracy. In 3 studies with university and adult samples, prosocial orientation was more strongly associated with empathic accuracy when distinct forms of power were high than when power was low. In Study 1, a physiological indicator of prosocial orientation, respiratory sinus arrhythmia, exhibited a stronger positive association with empathic accuracy in a face-to-face interaction among dispositionally high-power individuals. In Study 2, experimentally induced prosocial orientation increased the ability to accurately judge the emotions of a stranger but only for individuals induced to feel powerful. In Study 3, a trait measure of prosocial orientation was more strongly related to scores on a standard test of empathic accuracy among employees who occupied high-power positions within an organization. Study 3 further showed a mediated relationship between prosocial orientation and career satisfaction through empathic accuracy among employees in high-power positions but not among employees in lower power positions. Discussion concentrates upon the implications of these findings for studies of prosociality, power, and social behavior.