Study: The Rich Really Are More Selfish

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“Lower-class” individuals—i.e., folks without much money or education—demonstrate more compassion and empathy than their wealthy counterparts, according to a series of psychological studies. In social scientist speak, “self-oriented behavior” is more likely to be exhibited by people with good educations, prestigious jobs, high incomes, and overall higher-ranking social status.

How you rank in society purportedly has a lot to do with how much you care about your fellow man. That’s the gist of “Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm,” a new paper written by University of California psychologists and social scientists published in the academic journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The authors write that one’s sense of social class—derived mainly from income and education—”exerts broad influences on social thought, emotion, and behavior.” Using various tests that measure empathy, those who perceive themselves among the lower classes demonstrate “heightened vigilance of the social context and an other-focused social orientation.” In other words, poorer, less well-educated individuals tend to notice, and care more about, the people around them. “Upper-class rank perceptions,” on the other hand, “trigger a focus away from the context toward the self, prioritizing self-interest.”

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How the heck can researchers measure something like empathy? One study, for instance, asked participants to identify the emotions on display in photos of people with different facial expressions. Those with high-school-only educations showed “greater empathetic accuracy” than participants with college educations.

The paper also claims that people with less education and less money tend to be more generous with what money they do have. When the question is posed regarding how much people should give to charity, “lower-class” ranks suggest a higher percentage of one’s income than the percentage recommended by the wealthy. (Then again, a tiny percentage of a billionaire’s income is a lot more than a large chunk of a middle-class person’s income.)

Another study cited in the paper involved giving participants 10 points, which would later be traded in for money. The individuals given the points were to divide them up between themselves and an anonymous partner. Guess who shared more of their points?

We found that individuals reporting lower subjective socioeconomic status gave more to their partner than did upper-socioeconomic-status participants.

In this context, the next time you’re called “low-class,” consider it a compliment.

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Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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