Why differences in social class lead to different judgments

Why differences in social class lead to different judgments

When faced with a dilemma, the choice is often between bad and bad. Studies have shown that individuals of different classes differ in their judgment of – and response to – similar dilemmas.

A shift in focus between empathy and a more utilitarian position can explain these differences.

Generally speaking, individuals that are upper class choose differently than individuals from all other classes when faced with difficult dilemmas. Upper class individuals consider the overall consequences and therefore choose the bad that is least bad for the general picture. Lower class individuals tend to show more empathy to what is close by, which results in making different choices (Piff & Willer, 2012).

Upper class individuals more often choose to inflict or allow harm to one person to create more gain (or less loss) for more persons, whereas lower class individuals more often choose to save one person from major harm, even if this leads to more harm to a larger group of people.

Adaptation to the situation

Given the (relatively) more threatening environments they live in and their relative lack of material resources, lower-class individuals engage in a variety of adaptive social-cognitive processes (knowledge and strategies people develop to handle social situations).

As part of this process, lower-class individuals respond adaptively to threats in their environments by building supportive, interdependent networks that they can draw on to confront threats when they arise (Piff & Willer, 2012). In other words, they rely on their neighbors, friends and family when they need help to kick your ass – or mine.

But where do these differences come from?

  • Do upper class individuals lack empathy?
  • Do the lower-class individuals lack sight on the ‘bigger picture’?

Probably both are true. Researchers have found that the differences in choices and actions between upper and lower class individuals that are presented with a similar dilemma can be made smaller by inducing (bringing about) more empathy in the upper class individuals.

But is this the right thing to do? Will society be better of because of it?

The decision making of higher social class individuals often benefits other social groups and the greater good because it is not guided by emotions. Choosing the greater good might be quite difficult for lower class individuals, because they are more familiar with the pain that is caused to the ‘one’ that suffers from the choice. Upper class individuals will generally be more capable to avoid this suffering through the better circumstances they have and can create.

Is the pain worth it?

A question that is relevant to me is where the boundary lies between acceptable suffering and unacceptable suffering.

In general, utilitarian reasoning is complicated. What goods are to be chased? Happiness? Wealth? Money? Who decides? And most importantly: how much individual suffering is allowed to improve the general welfare? Is it okay if one individual suffers? Or when twenty suffer? What about half the population, if the other half will improve greatly? And is there a boundary to the suffering that may be caused to improve the welfare of others?

These problems with utilitarianism – consequentialist reasoning – make that it is wise remind upper class individuals to have empathy for lower class individuals. Maybe the eventual choice will remain the same, but having both perspectives in mind cannot cause too much harm. At the very least, it will make those who make a decision from which others will suffer more sensible to this suffering, so that they may take some comforting measures.

What do you think? Do you agree that upper class should be reminded of empathy more often? Or do you think lower class individuals should have more eye for the general good?

Looking forward to your responses!

Image courtesy of Winnond/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net



Innovation and Research Officer at Sugar Habits
Judith studied behavioral change (applied social psychology) and is currently finishing her masters in philosophy with special attention for philosophy of action and intentionality. She works for SugarHabits a social media platform that helps people unlock more of their potential through learning new habits.

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