We have now done 12 separate studies measuring empathy in every way imaginable, social behavior in every way, and some work on compassion and it’s the same story.  Lower class people just show more empathy, more pro-social behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it.        –Dacher Keltner PhD, University of California-Berkeley

It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.           –Zero Mostel in “Fiddler On The Roof”

This is not an attempt to glamorize poverty and the “noble poor.”  Yet how can a class of people be so powerless and yet responsible for much of our economic collapse as many politicians would have us believe?   The carousel of life is picking up speed and more of us are being tossed roughly to the side every day.  That is why I found Dacher Keltner’s research so interesting.  It goes against the alarming undercurrent of blaming the victim and demonizing the most vulnerable members of our society.

To be poor is to be reminded every day of the need to lean on others.  Their survival is based on reading other people’s emotions.  People in poverty lack social buffers and the luxury of independence.  Perhaps realizing the fickleness of the future, they are more willing to share today’s small good fortune.  According to Keltner, individuals from a lower-class background ask for help and provide help to others more frequently.  “When poor people see someone else suffering, they have a physiological response that is missing in people with more resources.”   Keltner sees a strength in lower class identity: greater empathy, community, more altruism, and finer attunement to other people.

As we get wealthier, Keltner suggests, we are able to insulate ourselves from others.  A country squire with a fleet of cars will be unlikely to join a carpool or need to call a neighbor for a last-minute ride to work.  Finding a babysitter is not left to the whims of neighborhood teenagers (no, I am not still bitter). Wealth grants us independence, and according to Keltner, diminishes our empathy for others.  The wealthy have the freedom to focus on the self, and consider their opportunities to be earned.  In psychology experiments, wealthier people often miss the nuance, and don’t read other people’s emotions as successfully.  As we rise in the classes we become less empathic and more likely to hoard resources.

Keltner’s work legitimizes what I have felt to be true, anecdotally, for many years.  If I needed a favor, or a rule bent in the name of common sense it was often someone laboring for minimum wage who would go out of his way to help me.  Our family has felt deep connections with compassionate home healthcare workers during vulnerable times.  When I have needed a break, like a difficult home repair or roadside assistance, individuals without very much have helped me and on occasion refused payment.  Invariably I have been impressed by folks with a good heart and a feeling that we are all in this together.

A number of years ago my daughter Rachael, inheritor of the Cook gene for sense of direction, was driving late at night and found herself lost in south central Los Angeles.  Panicked, tearful and in need of a bathroom, she walked into an all night diner and began to cry.  The counter man wanted to shoo her along, but the cook came running from the kitchen.  This saintly woman calmed her, gave her directions, and made her promise to call when she arrived home safely.  Rachael called.  Fortunately it was years before I heard the story, but it has always stuck with me.

There are benevolent empathic people of means, as there are cold, selfish poor people.  The wonder is that there are not more of each.


Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  He is performing, if you can call it that, at The Black Forest (26th and Nicollet) with four really talented spoken word artists September 17th, at 7:30 PM.

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