Yesterday was a big day for the Greater Good Science Center. Or at least it was a big day for press coverage.

First, we were profiled on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, which highlighted research into how to find happiness during the sometimes-stressful holiday season:

“The gist of it isn’t any more complicated than the fact that consumption and materialism will not make us happy,” said Christine Carter, a sociologist whose title at the center is the Santa-worthy one of happiness expert.

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“We confuse those things with happiness,” Carter said. “But we have found that there are three main things that make you happier over the holidays, and they have nothing to do with materialism.”

Those three things consist of feeling grateful for the good things in your life, taking time with your family and using every opportunity you can to help others.

“The need for feeling grateful starts with Thanksgiving, but it doesn’t have to end,” Carter said. “It’s important all year round to be grateful for the things that a lot of people take for granted. It can be your kids, your close friends, even just the fact that you have hot water for a shower.

“When you train your attention on what you feel grateful for, you are highly likely to miss the hassles,” Carter said. “Our brains act as giant filters. We are either going to notice what we appreciate or things that tick us off.”

We hope you’ll read the entire article, “Greater Good Science Center’s key to happy holidays.”

Later that day, the Fox News show “The Five” (which takes the time-slot formerly occupied by Glenn Beck, who was pushed out for inflammatory rhetoric) offered a different, more political, take on our research.

For nine minutes, the hosts discuss a new study from GGSC Hornaday Graduate Fellow Jennifer Stellar, “Class and compassion: Socioeconomic factors predict responses to suffering,” which was published in a December 12 edition of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Emotion.

Stellar and her colleagues “found that individuals in the upper middle and upper classes were less able to detect and respond to the distress signals of others,” as the UC Berkeley News Center summarized. “Overall, the results indicate that socio-economic status correlates with the level of empathy and compassion that people show in the face of emotionally charged situations.”

Here’s what “The Five” had to say about these results:

The hosts don’t name the study’s primary author, the GGSC, or even the University of California, and the show doesn’t point viewers to the actual study so that they can understand the results for themselves.

In fact, the five hosts appear to be interested in the study primarily for the purpose of bashing a cartoonish version of the city of Berkeley, home to the flagship campus of the University of California, where the Greater Good Science Center is based. “Berkeley!” says one of the hosts. “I mean, why are you giving this any credibility whatsoever?”

The Fox News tagline is “We report, you decide.” So perhaps it’s best for us to simply report the segment and allow you, the reader, to decide for yourself what to think.

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However, we’d like to use the opportunity to reiterate the study’s key findings.

“It’s not that the upper classes are cold-hearted,” says Jennifer Stellar. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

This study is actually consistent with many others which find that the affluent must sometimes struggle to empathize with people who are less fortunate than themselves—see, for example, “The Poor Give More.” As Stellar notes, “These latest results indicate that there’s a culture of compassion and cooperation among lower-class individuals that may be born out of threats to their wellbeing.”

In our society, having money translates directly into social power. GGSC Faculty Director Dacher Keltner addresses the results of wealth inequality and power disparities in his essay, “The Power Paradox”:

High-power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, to speak out of turn, and to fail to look at others who are speaking. They are also more likely to tease friends and colleagues in hostile, humiliating fashion. Surveys of organizations find that most rude behaviors—shouting, profanities, bald critiques—emanate from the offices and cubicles of individuals in positions of power.

My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior.

But as Dacher emphasizes, empathy and compassion are skills that anyone can learn—and recognizing limitations like class, race, or gender bias can help us to overcome them:

When we recognize this paradox and all the destructive behaviors that flow from it, we can appreciate the importance of promoting a more socially-intelligent model of power. Social behaviors are dictated by social expectations. As we debunk long-standing myths and misconceptions about power, we can better identify the qualities powerful people should have, and better understand how they should wield their power. As a result, we’ll have much less tolerance for people who lead by deception, coercion, or undue force. No longer will we expect these kinds of antisocial behaviors from our leaders and silently accept them when they come to pass.

We’ll also start to demand something more from our colleagues, our neighbors, and ourselves. When we appreciate the distinctions between responsible and irresponsible uses of power—and the importance of practicing the responsible, socially-intelligent form of it—we take a vital step toward promoting healthy marriages, peaceful playgrounds, and societies built on cooperation and trust.

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When will the rich listen to the evidence, e.g. of the
book “The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for
Everyone” rather than their own blinkered self-

Simon Grant | 12:40 am, December 31, 2011 | Link


@Simon. Studies that divide people into ‘groups’ and assign characteristics and then say that one characteristic is superior to another,IMO, do not contribute anything to human unity. They only divide. The reality is that any ‘group’ has good points and bad points. Different characteristics are necessary in different situations. If we would accept each other for who we are instead of wanting to change everyone into some utopic ‘equal’, the world would be a better place.
  Have you considered that your comment about the rich could sounds just as bigotted as someone making a racist statement about a particular ethnic group? Or that your statement is just as negative as the ones FOX made about liberals?
  My point is that we are all ‘different’ individuals. Equality does not translate into sameness. Vive la difference!

OBR | 6:11 am, December 31, 2011 | Link


I wonder, then, why neither Jesus nor his followers
(James in particular) had any problem referring to
“the rich” and “the poor”? Presumably, if they
thought it was divisive, they thought that division
was one worth drawing attention to.

Does accepting “each other for who we are instead
of wanting to change everyone” mean accepting
the worldly wealth that people have as part of

What do you personally think of the arguments of
Wilkinson and Pickett in “The Spirit Level”? have
you read them? Have you looked at the evidence?
What do you conclude?

Simon Grant | 6:53 am, December 31, 2011 | Link


The Fox piece was very informative.  I found out that I
am “excruciatingly wealthy”.  I can’t wait to tell my

Dave Nold | 8:05 am, December 31, 2011 | Link


@Simon. Perhaps I didn’t say it clearly enough. It isn’t the using of categorical terms, but rather assigning characteristics to the terms and then making judgements on those characteristics—and then implying that one group is ‘better’ than another based on certain characteristics. To me, equality means that we are all equal as human beings and we all should be given equal respect. That includes not passing judgement on others. In fact, it has been proven in psychological research, that when we pass judgements on others without really knowing them, we are really projecting our own values and insecurities. Since you bring up the biblical reference, I do believe that the bible states ‘juege not, lest ye be judged’.

As to your question re acceptance, why should we not accept everything that people bring with them, including wealth? You accept poverty, why not wealth? Given that we are all fallible human beings, what gives anyone the right to determine what another should do with regard to their person and posessions? That is, what gives one fallible human being the right to judge another human being? IMO, we can certainly judge actions and behaviors, but not persons.

I am not familiar with Wilkinson and Pickett, but will look them up. I’m always willing to consider a different perspective.

I’m enjoying this exchange, BTW.

OBR | 9:10 am, December 31, 2011 | Link


HAAA! I am just rolling on the floor right now. Note, Jeremy, that Fox newscasters are not “rich”, they are “unpoor”. Just like they are UNethical and UNhappy.

It sounds like you may have dragged Greg Gutfield out of bed to do a newscast at a bad time, as he said he’s still nursing that hangover. How could you? Fox News also probably have a bee in their bonnets over certain Berkeley professors, such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Kahneman or the guy who blew out Intelligent Design in Kansas schools, Kevin Padian. You just knew they had to pick on you guys when you called out the wealthy folks.

Well, you’re in good company. What other news channel would criticize 2 Girl Scouts for trying to conserve the rainforest for orangutans?

I mean, really. Look at this as a compliment. You just got on Saturday Night Live. I’ll toast to that. Just don’t drink too much or you’ll end up like Greg.

Amelie | 5:35 pm, December 31, 2011 | Link


@Simon Even if an equal society is beneficial saying
that they are self interested does not make sense. 
Not all rich people are unwilling to help the poor or
want inequality.  The issue here has nothing to do
with equality, since there is some evidence for the
benefits of higher perceived socioeconomic status.
The real issue is that Fox News dismissed the
science because they didn’t agree with it politically. 
Your comment was an attack on the rich which was
as judgmental as Fox News was about liberals.  It
seems that a more comprehensive view on the
matter is needed (more than “The Spirit Level”
which I have read and enjoyed) for any attempt at
objectivity in the matter.  Just saying that the rich
don’t listen is a straw man.  There are real
arguments based in psychology for the benefits of
being in a higher socioeconomic status. There is
also a fear (mainly because of the USSR) that an
equal society would lead to a much lower standard
of living which has been linked to less happiness.

Harry Cooke | 9:12 pm, January 5, 2012 | Link


Glad to see this topic has sparked such a robust and spirited discussion.

I think research can shed some light on at least one point that has come up, one that @Harry Cooke touches on in his last comment.

Many studies actually suggest that more equal, egalitarian countries—like those of Scandinavia—are actually happier than other nations; Denmark often leads the pack in cross-national studies of happiness. My colleague Jeremy Smith touches on some of this research in this post:

What’s more, a recent study by Shigehiro Oishi of UVA found that Americans are, on average, less happy in times of greater income inequality:

This doesn’t mean that more equal societies will always be happier (see Harry’s point about the USSR). But on average, the research suggests that equality and happiness are pretty strongly linked—perhaps because, as the Oishi study suggests, equality fosters feelings of trust and fairness, which are integral to happiness.

Jason Marsh | 10:00 am, January 6, 2012 | Link


Picking up on Jason’s final paragraph: there are, of
course, many factors that might contribute to overall
happiness in a society. The USSR might have scored
relatively high in material equity, in that people had
similar access to the basics and some of the luxuries
of life, but it scored exceedingly low in political
equality—people did not have an equal say in
decisions, and the decisions were often arbitrary and
enforced with threats of imprisonment or even death.
That doesn’t sound like a recipe for happiness, does
it?  Scandinavian countries have somehow managed
to combine political democracy with social equality,
and achieved a relatively high standard of living. We
might not be able to replicate that in the US, but it’s
certainly always been worth a respectful look.

Jeremy Adam Smith | 1:14 pm, January 6, 2012 | Link

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