Experiences can shape individuals, but they can also inform an entire generation’s ability to navigate conflict and change.

If skating champions are formed in the “crucible of sexual tension” a la Lady Dynamite, interpersonal gurus are formed in the challenge of socio-economic disparities. Or at least, new results from the University of Waterloo in Canada suggests this.

How does the challenge of tackling conflict help humans adapt more effectively?

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image of philosopher Aristotle for article Why Life Needs a Challenge to Adapt
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Social Status Linked With Diminished Reasoning Skills

The study compared social classes with their associated “wisdom”. Researchers defined “wisdom” as a person’s ability to remain intellectually modest. The formula also factored in a person’s open-mindedness and capacity for empathy. The final factors were a person’s pragmatism and their ability to understand perspectives that challenge their own.

Think of the Aristotle quote “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Except, in this case, it isn’t formal education that allows a person to entertain thoughts they might not accept. Per the research team, those with superior IQs did not benefit from that.

The 2,100 candidates came from MTurk (Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) crowdsourcing marketplace. Each participant answered 20 questions on a recent critical situation with a partner or friend. The questions included:

  • “Did you consider that you might be wrong?”
  • “How much did you try to understand the other person’s viewpoint?”
  • “Did you ever consider a third-party perspective?”

The researchers used substantial surveys with large sample sizes as building blocks. Compiling their findings with other results, they compared lower income and middle-class candidates.

Pairing “wise reasoning” scores with social class scores and previous studies, researchers found that more affluent areas or individuals showed reduced “wisdom” capacity. The cause of this? It is more than just worrying less about where your next meal is coming from.

image of Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid for article Why Life Needs a Challenge to Adapt
Tim Vandevall | Dutch Renaissance Press LLC via Danmartell.com

How Income Levels Affect Communication and Conflict Mediation

Igor Grossmann, leader of the Waterloo research team, said the results displayed a systemic issue in society.

“As we continue to focus as a society on independence and entitlement among the middle class, we are also inadvertently eroding wisdom and reasoning in favor of a more self-centered population.”

Combined with shifting societal priorities, middle-class individuals face less economic scarcity. This affects decision-making skills, as well as prioritization regarding things such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid.

Individuals in lower income brackets might worry about the lower parts of the pyramid more. Therefore, more mental faculties get siphoned toward decision making. They also get redirected toward navigating and maintaining interpersonal relationships. This also relates to the nature of jobs people in the middle class vs. lower classes tend to have.

Common terms like “blue collar” and “white collar” aren’t as applicable anymore. Jobs once considered “vocational” pay similar wages to that of desk workers. Despite this, economic disparity is rampant.

image of spillover effect definition by Henry Casey for article Why Life Needs a Challenge to Adapt
Henry Casey | Slideplayer

In our modern society, many people can’t afford basic housing even while working a full-time job. People in service jobs also have to engage more people in customer service capacities. This can become emotionally taxing and lead to the spillover effect.

Of course, if you can’t afford a larger house like someone in a different class, you may be in close quarters with family or friends. You would need to navigate emotionally tumultuous waters more often than someone of a more affluent station.

This, combined with emotional labor expended at their jobs, enables those in lower income brackets to be “wiser”. Increased exposure to conflict or emotionally charged situations enables quick decision-making skills and effective communication abilities.

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A Shift Towards the Self, Technology Bias, or a Need For Challenges?

It is unclear whether or not this study accounted for the role technology plays in today’s culture. Grossmann alleges that those in higher stations are more “self-focused”. But individualism, democratization, and isolation are all aspects of technological advancement.

A 200 person follow-up study in Michigan attempted to clarify results. However, the study participants did not include the extremely poor and extremely wealthy. Despite this, the results bear further study. They also spurred conversation amongst the research team.

For those seeking to increase their “wise reasoning” scores, the researchers suggest:

  • Use third-person language regarding conflicts
  • Mentally address yourself AND your cohort by name (allows for perspective)
  • Expand your experience pool to include things outside your own personal experiences such as volunteering or events celebrating other cultures or viewpoints
image of Igor Grossmann for article Why Life Needs a Challenge to Adapt
Igor Grossmann | Waterloo Institute for Complexity & Innovation

By facing the challenge of entertaining ideas outside your own scope, you can begin to understand more than yourself. Due to the insulation that wealth can provide, it follows that people in lower income brackets are faced with more challenges like this.

On that note, Grossmann did joke that he would “love to interview Donald Trump”. For results focused on adaptation through conflict resolution, decision making, and empathy, it would be a character study.

What other factors regarding social class and the wealth/poverty spectrum contribute to a person’s ability to adapt?

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