Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he directs the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab. He also a founder of the Greater Good Science Center. In a recent conversation with BerkeleyWellness, where this Q&A originally appeared, he discusses the effect that wealth has on people’s generosity and sense of connectedness.

Dacher Keltner

BerkeleyWellness: Most of us think that wealthy people are more generous. Are they?

Dacher Keltner: Wealthy people give more money to charity because they have more money to give. But studies show that middle-class and poorer people give higher proportions of their money to charity. In our own research, when we’ve given volunteers of different income levels just $10 they could share with a stranger, lower income people gave more. By now, we’ve done several studies that look at how your wealth, education, and prestige of your career or family predict generosity. And the results are consistent: poorer people assist other people more than wealthy people.

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BW: That’s counterintuitive. What’s your theory as to why?

DK: When you lack institutional support, when you face threats in life, the only way to survive your environment is to connect with other people. You reach out to people more. You form strong social ties. You need them, and they need you. When you’re poorer, you’re helping someone get to work if their car broke down, or looking after their child while they run to the store—and they’re doing the same for you. Humans have this wonderful ability to bond in the face of threat. That was the foundation of our theory.

We started doing research, and now we have real evidence. We’ve done studies where we measure activity in the vagus nerve, which extends from our brainstems to our abdomens. This nerve is the physiological nexus with compassion, and when it’s active most of us feel warm expansion, the feeling we get when we are moved emotionally. The more your vagus nerve fires, the more compassion you feel.

In one study, we showed undergraduate students of different backgrounds pictures of kids with cancer. Students from lower-class backgrounds had a high vagus nerve response. But we didn’t get much response at all in upper-class students. In fact, in every study we’ve done poorer people show a stronger vagus nerve response. To me, that’s tough proof.

BW: But don’t wealthier people need connections, too?

DK: Yes, but not usually to protect them from real, physical threat. Just look at the environment of an upper middle-class life. Thankfully, it’s taking a lot of the suffering out of the environment. Our kids don’t die at the same rate as poor kids. They’re pretty healthy. They live in safer neighborhoods. But what we lose, ironically, is exposure to suffering. We don’t learn how to handle people in need.

That’s all the more true in the United States, which is very segregated by class. Wealthy or upper middle-class kids go to well-to-do-schools, well-to-do colleges, live in well-to-do neighborhoods and get well-to-do jobs. They just don’t see the rest of the world.

BW: Are you saying that wealthier people are less compassionate because they don’t know any poor people?

DK: That’s one part of it. The second part is the more worrisome part. With class comes almost an Ayn Randian ideology of putting one’s self-interest first. Our research with UC Berkeley students shows that those from an upper-class background have almost essentialist explanations for how people end up where they are on the social ladder.

It’s this type of thinking: “Well, great people rise to the top. And those people on the bottom, through flaws of character, ended up down there.”

It’s an age-old way of thinking. Before doctors and politicians knew that bacteria caused tuberculosis, they blamed TB on the poor, because that’s who mostly got TB. Before microbiology, the prevailing medical theory was that TB had something to do with the character of the poor.

We’ve found that people at the bottom strata have a more sophisticated view of life: Part of where you end up is due to education, part of it is due to your character, and part of it is due to your opportunities.

BW: Why do you study this issue? What’s the public concern?

DK: Humans evolved to share. We’re meant to share, that’s how people survived in early hunter-gatherer societies. When you don’t share, you get tremendous social inequality, and that’s what’s going on today.

This inequality affects people’s health, and it affects our greater public health. When we study the emotional profiles of people from lower class backgrounds, there’s a lot of anxiety, a continual sense of being under threat, a sense of shame, a sense of being stigmatized. And that’s bad for your body and bad for your health.

But in this country, most of our political leaders—as well as those who influence them—are wealthy. And, in general, the wealthier they are the less interested they are in policies that help the needy.

So I don’t have a lot of hope for the political system, regrettably. But I do have a lot of hope of shifting medical practice—so social inequality is seen and addressed as a health risk. And I see hope in small groups, or individuals, who are trying to create opportunities for people who have fewer resources.

At UC Berkeley, we’re partnering with the Sierra Club to take poor kids and veterans out rafting. We’re documenting that they get physical benefits from nature. That’s cheap! There are a lot of pragmatic, beneficial things that teachers and community groups can do that don’t cost a lot of money.

BW: Who do you hope to influence with your research?

DK: Well, I’d like to influence the wealthy people in our society, but it will be challenging. It’s funny how people react to our findings. I’ve had really well-to-do people who I personally know get very mad at me. More people have gotten angry with me over our findings that wealth reduces compassion than over any other research I’ve done.

But, still, I hope they hear it. We’ve seen a massive rise in wealth in Silicon Valley and in the Bay Area. I hope the people in tech, in start-ups, hear it, and begin to think about this disconnect with the poor as something to avoid as they assume roles in the higher classes. We’ll see what they do. I’ll be there to remind them of these findings.

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