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The Affluent Unable to cope with Disasters

Update Date: Aug 31, 2012 11:47 AM EDT

In times of turmoil and strife, people seek the support and council of of fellow sufferers. The most recent example of this was on September 11th 2001, and the four years preceding, when the American people, regardless of their individual political and social agendas, banded together in a an impassioned and moving display of patriotism. Despite later revelations uncovering misguided and capitalist-driven ventures moving us towards a war that would shake the economy and the people's faith in their country, we stood united under one common enemy, indivisible under one flag and well and truly proud to call ourselves American.

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At least that's what it appeared to be.

But researchers from UC Berkeley suggest that it is easier for the affluent to find comfort in material possessions in times of trouble, contrary to the 'have-nots' who are more likely to reach out to one another in times of trouble.

"In times of uncertainty, we see a dramatic polarization, with the rich more focused on holding onto and attaining wealth and the poor spending more time with friends and loved ones," said Paul Piff, a post-doctoral scholar in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper published online this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers collected data from five separate experiments with different groups of ethnically and socio-economically diverse participants of varying ages per trial, all of whom reported their social status (household income and education) as well as their level of community mindedness and/or preoccupation with money. 

Results show how people from varying socio-economic backgrounds respond to both natural and man-made disasters, including economic recessions, political instability, earthquakes and hurricanes.

They also help explain why, in times of turmoil, "people can become more polarized in their responses to uncertainty and chaos," as stated by a UC Berkley news release.

One example of this is that when participants were asked if they would move across country to take a higher-paying job, lower-class subjects were more likely to decline in order to stay with family and friends. By contrast, upper class participants opted to take the job and cut ties with their community.

The study notes that in when stressed the upper-class focuses less on personal relationships and more on worldly possessions, positing that "material wealth may be a particularly salient, accessible and preferred individual coping mechanism ... when they are threatened by perceptions of chaos within the social environment."

It boils down to the idea of control. In times of uncertainty or chaos (defined by researchers as"the feeling that the world is unknown, unpredictable, seemingly random ... a general sense that the world and one's life have turned uncertain and topsy-turvy), lower-class individuals lean towards a 'tend and befriend' response, having far more experience in coping with environmental and/or social stressors.

They know that material wealth can be lost and have learned to rely on others as a way of dealing with the loss. Those who are of a higher socioeconomic status or background however have no known way of coping with catastrophic loss. Material possessions can be bought, sold and managed while personal relationships are infinitely harder to control.

"Given the very different forms of coping that we observe among the upper and lower classes, our research suggests that in times of economic uncertainty and social instability, disparities between the haves and the have-nots could grow ever wider," Piff said.

For more details on the experiment, visit the study, visit the UC Berkley Website.

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