Correlating Social Status and Refined Behavior

The correlation between elevated social status and refined behavior is deeply imbedded in our language and culture. Good manners are described as “gentlemanly” or “ladylike”, perhaps as “aristocratic.” It is often assumed that the upper classes particular concern themselves with niceties, perhaps because they have the leisure to do so or perhaps because of a sense of noblesse oblige.

A recent study by Dacher Keltner and Michael Kraus from the University of California at Berkely paired off college students from unequal socio-economic backgrounds for brief encounters and studied the interaction. The study was widely reported in the news media, where it was often described as showing that the wealthy in fact have coarser manners than the poor. In fact, this is not at all what the study showed, and what the study did show is quite interesting, so it is worth examining the evidence.

The study revealed two things:

* Students from the higher socio-economic background displayed on the whole more “disengagement behaviors”, directing attention away from the partner by fidgeting with objects, doodling, etc. Those from the lower socio-economic level displayed more “engagement behaviors” intended to get conversation back on track, such as nodding, laughing, and initiating eye contact.

* When videos of the interactions were shown to other students, they were able to identify the actual socio-economic background of the participants with a high degree of accuracy.

The “disengagement behaviors” don’t really have anything to do with being impolite. You could just as easily state that the wealthier students were modest and reserved, and the poorer ones sycophantic and brazen.

The authors’ conclusion is that the explanation is based on dependency. When you need people, you try to be engaging; when you don’t need them, you tend to be disengaging. They hypothesize that “those of a higher socio-economic status depend less on others for things like connections to prestigious institutions that may provide better job security or educational attainment, for example, than those of a lower socio-economic status, who may ┬áseek to attain these things.” They express concern that wealthier people are less engaged overall.

I think this conclusion is in the right direction, but goes much too far. In my opinion the pattern depends only on relative status, not absolute status; and the disengagement is partially a reaction to the engagement. The better formulation is: when you need someone, you try to engage them; when they need you, you try to disengage. If the study was done over, but the same high-status students were paired with even higher-status peers, I have no doubt that they in turn would have shown the engaging (fawning?) behavior, and the response of the even-wealthier would have been similar disengagement.

Likewise, I think that the ability to identify participants’ economic background is not the result of the difference in engagement but rather the cause: the lower-status participant uses a variety of cues to see that this person could help him economically or socially, and makes an extra effort to keep the conversation going.

The study still makes an important statement about inter-class relations. It shows how hard it is for people of varying status to hold even an innocent conversation on the basis of true equality. This, despite the fact that these meetings were in a laboratory environment and not in the context of a more natural social encounter where the opportunity for a continued and perhaps fruitful acquaintance would have been more expected.

I do not believe that there is any evidence that people of higher status are less engaged overall. But I think the study has an important lesson, and can remind people of all socio-economic levels to pay attention to hidden inequalities in even innocent social interactions.