The poor tend to value social connections,
psychologists say. But as people become wealthy, they need one another
less and — according to some scientists — make fewer connections.
Patricia Greenfield has tracked families in Chiapas, Mexico, over
four decades. Many were very poor when she started her study. Slowly,
over time, they grew wealthier.
Along the way, Greenfield
noticed something: As the people she followed grew richer, they became
more individualistic. Community ties frayed and weakened.
expanded her findings to form a more general theory about the effects
that wealth has on people: "We become more individualistic, less family
and community oriented."
In a new , the UCLA researcher makes the argument that the same thing has happened in the U.S. over a longer period.
bases her finding on an analysis she conducted of more than 1 million
books published in the U.S. between 1800 and 2000. Greenfield used the
Google Ngram viewer, a tool that allows rapid keyword searches of the
frequency of words in the books.
As the country grew wealthy
over that 200-year period, Greenfield found, some words became more
likely to be used in books, while other words became less frequent.
", and the frequency of the word 'give' went down," she said.
The words Americans used to describe themselves changed, too.
that would show an individualistic orientation became more frequent.
Examples of those words were 'individual,' 'self,' 'unique,' " she said.
"Words that would represent a more communal or more family orientation
went down in frequency. Some examples of those words are 'give,'
'obliged,' 'belong.' "
Greenfield's findings and theories
dovetail with a variety of other studies and research projects,
including Robert Putnam's 2000 book, , which explores the decline in community relationships in the U.S.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of
California, Berkeley, said his own life reflected the changes Greenfield
and Putnam observe.
Keltner went from growing up poor in rural California to a
successful career at a prominent university: "I saw open doors and
barbecues in the backyard and kids playing all night," he said in an
interview, about his childhood. "And also the tougher side of husbands
out of work and drinking too much and, you know, the health issues that
go with impoverished circumstances."
As Keltner carved out a
busy professional life, his material concerns went away. But something
else happened. Those open doors and endless backyard parties? They
started to disappear from his life, too.
Keltner felt something inside him change, something about the way he related to others.
saw it personally — I feel it in myself," he said. "That somehow, when I
am thinking hard about making more money and rising in wealth and
enjoying materialistic benefits, I do feel personally that I am not as
responsive to the needs of others."
Keltner has explored this
paradox in his experiments: Social class ought to predict generosity in a
straightforward manner. The rich have more, which means they have less
to lose by giving away some of what they have. But that is not what
"In just about every way you can study it, our
lower-class individuals volunteer more, they give more of their
resources — they're more generous," he said.
Keltner is not
claiming the poor give more than the rich in absolute terms. Wealthy
philanthropists give away millions of dollars.
thinks that's not the best way to measure generosity. A thousand dollars
from a billionaire doesn't mean the same thing as $100 from someone
living on the poverty line.
Keltner cites a study conducted by ,
a network of nonprofit groups that measured how much people give
depending on how much they have: "The poor, say with family incomes
below $30,000 and $25,000, are giving about 4.2 percent of their wealth
away, whereas the wealthy are giving away 2.7 percent."
A variety of other research studies have found that are
than secular people to be generous; nearly all religions preach the
virtues of social interconnectedness. Keltner says the relationship
between social class and generosity is likely amplified by religious
belief, but is also independently true.
and , working
independently, have both concluded that the poor tend to value social
connections because social connections are integral to survival when you
can't make your way on your own.
"The wife may make the
clothes for the whole family," Greenfield said of the families she
tracked in the early part of her research in Mexico. "The husband grows
food and builds the shelter for the whole family. Therefore giving,
social obligation, belonging to a family are very important."
slowly, as people become wealthy, they need one another less, and so
they make fewer connections. Autonomy and freedom become more important
than responsibility and obligation.
Greenfield points out that
one "silver lining" of the recent recession in the U.S. is that
community ties appeared to strengthen as the economy buckled.
Keltner nor Greenfield is offering a screed against wealth. As America
has become richer, lots of good things have happened. Disease has
declined. Education has improved. Women and minorities have gotten more
But it has come at a price.
rise in wealth, along with that rise in wealth comes ideas of
individuality and self-expression and autonomy and freedom — and
loneliness," Keltner said.
Keltner said being wealthy does not
inevitably mean isolation. But it probably does mean that the bonds of
connection that came easily to us 200 years ago might now need to be
carefully — and deliberately — cultivated.