Studying the psychology of class is also important because it puts a contextual spin on what has largely been an individually oriented view of psychological processes, says Michael Kraus, Ph D, who studies class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign."It suggests that the contexts we grow up in and are socialized in are an important part of what shapes the self," he says.
"The wealthy don't do that as well as poorer people — not because they don't have those capabilities, but because the context of their lives allows them to disengage." In other words, having more space, material goods, money and free time makes it easier for wealthy people to buy their way out of problems, take a vacation when things get stressful, or otherwise avoid or mitigate everyday stresses.
Consider the person who can afford to have a contractor re-do her kitchen, versus someone who must borrow money for the job, try to do the job herself, or simply live with old equipment that doesn't function properly or is even dangerous.
These findings suggest that cultural context and its resulting mental habits allow people of higher classes to disconnect from others' concerns, says Keltner.
"To be compassionate, you have to carefully attend to other people — to what they're thinking, feeling and saying," Keltner says.
That said, these researchers see class on a continuum, rather than as a fixed distinction among upper, middle and lower class.
In their view, the higher in socioeconomic status you are, the more independently oriented you are likely to be, while the lower in status you are, the more group-minded you are likely to be, for example.
The implications are larger than breakfast choice, he adds.
"Class affects whether someone is going to be accepted into a particular kind of school, their likelihood of succeeding in that school, the kinds of jobs they have access to, the kinds of friends they make" — in essence, the degree of status, power and perks people enjoy or lack in their daily lives.
In the first study, drivers of high-status vehicles were far more likely than others to cut off other drivers at a busy four-way intersection.