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The affluent have more fluid and adaptable smarts, according to a series of controversial sociological studies. A new one seems to confirm the general trend – but also finds that their poorer peers tend to be philosophically wiser.

The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, used two assessments to gauge raw intelligence, and the more abstract wisdom of open mindedness and intellectual humility, from a wide socioeconomic spectrum.

“The findings suggest that higher social class weighs individuals down by providing the ecological constraints that undermine wise reasoning about interpersonal affairs,” the scientists write.

The University of Waterloo psychologists used two different study methods to test their hypothesis.

The first was an online survey incorporating 2,145 people through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing marketplace. The participants were asked to recall their recent life experiences, and asked to consider thie resolution of conflicts. The demographic information off the subjects was only estimated based off IP addresses, and their relative affluence based off what state the participant was taking the test in.

The second was more direct: a group of 199 participants from Washtenaw County in Michigan were selected out of the phone book, and contacted by a personal letter invitation, agreeing ultimately to come to a lab setting to take the assessments. These participants confirmed their demographic information. They completed basic cognition tests – and then a reasoning test based on “Dear Abby” advice columnist letters.

In the studies, the richer tended to do better with questions that had clear right-and-wrong answers. But the abstract reasoning involved in “wisdom” was exhibited more readily by the people who were from poor or working class backgrounds.

“Central aspects of this reasoning style include intellectual humility, recognition that the world is in flux and changes, and the ability to take different contexts into account besides one’s own – factors philosophers have long associated with handling situations wisely,” they write.

Igor Grossmann, the Waterloo scientist who led the work with Justin Brienza at the Ontario school, said the results provide lessons for the middle class in North America. 

“This is not surprising when we consider our cultural emphasis on intelligence such as IQ, competency to accomplish tasks independently and the focus on self as opposed to the considerations of others, in the reach for success,” said Grossmann.  “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.”

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