You Can’t Buy Empathy

By Jason Marsh | December 14, 2010 | 5 comments

New research suggests the rich have a hard time reading others' emotions.

“It’s not what you know but who you know,” the saying goes, suggesting that social connections breed success.

But it seems there’s at least one way that the rich are less socially connected: New research finds that upper class people have more trouble reading others’ emotions.

MaleWitch

In a series of studies, researchers examined how well participants could judge the emotions that other people were feeling, a skill known as “empathic accuracy.” In each study, the researchers (including the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner) compared the empathic accuracy of people of higher and lower socioeconomic status (SES).

In one study, they showed 200 adults photos of faces expressing different emotions, finding that people with just a high school education identified the emotions more accurately than people who had a four-year college degree. (Education is commonly used to indicate socioeconomic status.)

In another study, the researchers had two college students participate in a group job interview; afterwards, they asked each student to gauge what the other had been feeling during the exchange. Among the 106 students involved, those who had reported that their family was of lower SES (relative to their school’s entire student population) were more likely to read the other person’s emotions correctly.

Describing their results in Psychological Science, the researchers argue that these discrepancies reflect the different ways higher and lower class people solve their problems in life. Because lower-class people can’t draw as much on social power or financial resources, they must instead rely on help from others, making them more sensitive to the social and emotional cues they get from those around them.

“If that’s your strategy,” says Michael Kraus, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, and the lead author of the study, “you need to be better at reading others’ emotions—for instance, by perceiving threats and understanding when others are angry, or by noticing when other people are happy, since that may signal opportunities that are few and far between.”

Indeed, in prior research he conducted with Keltner, Kraus found that people of lower socioeconomic status appeared more engaged in conversations than did people of higher SES—for instance, they were less likely to doodle and more likely to nod their heads or laugh in response to something their partner said. Related research, also co-authored by Kraus and Keltner, shows that people of lower SES are more likely to give money to a stranger as well.

But does their lofty status really cause upper class people to ignore others’ emotions, or are they innately less emotionally intelligent—perhaps they even get further in life because they’re less concerned about other people’s needs?

The researchers addressed this question in a final study described in their Psychological Science paper. They manipulated people’s sense of status, making participants feel higher or lower on the social ladder.

Regardless of their actual SES, people temporarily made to feel lower class were better able to discern others’ emotions; people temporarily made to feel upper class showed worse empathic accuracy.

This suggests that there’s something about the experience of high status that impedes our ability to connect with others emotionally. But it also provides hope that, with proper encouragement, even upper class people can become more sensitive to others’ emotions.

“What our research is suggesting is that upper class people don’t have a lower capacity for empathy,” says Kraus. “They just pay less attention. And if you can put them in a situation where you get them to pay more attention, you can get some real empathy from people who are wealthy and affluent.”

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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.

  

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Very interesting results. Just what is that “something”? This is a great collection of data that leaves us with more questions than answers. Paying less attention can result from staring at computer or tv screens all day, and I know that when I worked for minimum wage it was usually service jobs where I interacted with people more often. I wonder if that is a factor.

Getting ahead in life could be a result of inheriting money, property or a business, could it not?

One time a man in line ahead of me in an Rx store had to walk away without his medication because he was short of money. I followed him out of the store and gave him money (not very much, just enough to pay). He asked me, “why are you doing this? I said, “Because I’ve been there”. And I certainly had. Health insurance in our state is a total racket. No one should be denied their medication because they cannot pay!

A few years ago some politicians (maybe Senators) agreed to try an experiment where they lived on minimum wage for a month or so. They were interviewed on the radio. You could tell they previously had no idea how exhausing and even humiliating it would be to go without food to have their utilities shut off all while working full time.

Emmy | 3:06 pm, December 18, 2010 | Link

 

I suppose that’s rather plain. Being (or feeling)
upscale creature boosts one’s ego immensely. If
you are already at the top of the world, why should
you care about what do others feel? To let people
see you’re really from another planet, the land of
money and power, you should differ from others
essentially, and what is more essential to human
than emotions?

And vice versa - compare this study with
traditional aristocratic education throughout the
globe - then you show your feelings sincerely, you
are deemed ill-mannered. Why? Because thus you
cease to be god-like have-it-all, and become
human. Just like the rest of the world.
Subconscious VIP-flow of thought evaporates, and
you’re no longer cool enough for your high society.

xvost | 7:15 am, December 21, 2010 | Link

 

Jason this is fascinating - thank you.
Having spent many years moving between socioeconomic groups in the UK (both “up” and “down”) I think the terms “upper class” and “rich” can be distinctively different in some societies. Here “upper class” is not associated with money or academic or intellectual achievement - although it is strongly associated with schooling; it is principally associated with the use of languages both verbal and non-verbal within power relationships.
This tends to promote significant power distances and mitigated communication – again both verbal and non-verbal. The result is almost always to create barriers diminishing empathy – manifest in concepts such as “knowing one’s place” and expressions of distaste such as “their kind are not like us”. Few conflicts are as cruel and callous as class conflicts.
Best wishes
Paul

Paul Nicholas | 7:13 am, May 9, 2011 | Link

 

Jason this is fascinating - thank you.
Having spent many years moving between socioeconomic groups in the UK (both “up” and “down”) I think the terms “upper class” and “rich” can be distinctively different in some societies. Here “upper class” is not associated with money or academic or intellectual achievement - although it is strongly associated with schooling; it is principally associated with the use of languages both verbal and non-verbal within power relationships.
This tends to promote significant power distances and mitigated communication – again both verbal and non-verbal. The result is almost always to create barriers diminishing empathy – manifest in concepts such as “knowing one’s place” and expressions of distaste such as “their kind are not like us”. Few conflicts are as cruel and callous as class conflicts.
Best wishes
Paul

Pictures of Jesus | 2:38 pm, December 31, 2011 | Link

 

“What our research is suggesting is that upper class people don’t have a lower capacity for empathy,” says Kraus. “They just pay less attention. And if you can put them in a situation where you get them to pay more attention, you can get some real empathy from people who are wealthy and affluent.” I found this closing statement very interesting.smile

Easytether | 2:11 pm, January 4, 2012 | Link

 
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