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.
“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.
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.