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June 21, 2013

Money Can’t Buy Compassion, Says Study

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In the past, studies have shown that across countries happiness goes up and down with the GDP, but researchers at the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center are trying to understand how economics affect our other emotions as well. In new research, they are testing to see if wealthier individuals feel the same compassion towards others as those who with lower income.

“What we have learned from really interesting neuroscience is that humans, in the face of threat, connect to other people. And then complementarity, we thought, you know, if you grow up in a more privileged circumstance, you orient inwards to what’s inside of you.” said Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

The experiment consists of monitoring a participant’s vital statistics, such as heartbeat, while they watch different videos. After seeing a video about a child cancer patient, the researchers found that wealthier individuals displayed fewer physiological signs of compassion than their poorer counterparts.

“It’s not that upper-class individuals see someone who’s suffering and just they don’t care,” said Jennifer Stellar, one of the researchers. “It’s that they just maybe don’t notice in their environment that there are people around in need to the same extent as lower social class individuals.”

These studies have shown a difference in how people of each class rely on others for their level of happiness.

“Being lower in social class almost by definition makes it so that you can’t control your outcomes,” said Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, also of UC Berkeley. “The way that people who are lower in social class cope with that is by relying on the things that they know they can expect to be there. And what do people know they can expect to be there? Their friends, their family, their community.”

But, says the team at UC Berkeley, a person can always learn compassion and happiness if they don’t already have them.

Christine Carter, a sociologist at the university, said, “For eons, we have thought of happiness as a personality trait, and it’s actually much more appropriate to think of it as a skill or a set of skills that we can teach ourselves and teach our children, that we can practice with them.”


“Societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor do worse on a whole range of measures. They have worse health. They have more violence. They have more drug problems. Standards of child well-being are worse,” – Richard Wilkinson, Author, “The Spirit Level”.

Warm up questions

1. What is compassion?

2. How would you define happiness?

3. How do you think you can measure happiness?

Discussion questions

1. Why might it be a problem if wealthier individuals are less compassionate?

2. Do you think that money plays a central part in a person’s happiness? Why or why not?

3. How is compassion related to happiness?

— Compiled by Becky Gaskill for NewsHour Extra

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