Study says the rich are less empathetic than the poor

If you have been following the political debate in Washington and Iowa, you might already have arrived at the same conclusion as a study featured in The New York Times.

According to a paper by three psychological researchers — Michael W. Kraus, at the University of California, San Francisco; Stéphane Côté, at the University of Toronto; and Dacher Keltner, the University of California, Berkeley — members of the upper class are less adept at reading emotions.

Research on psychological effects of social status is recent in this country, where the mere mention of class can set off Marxism alarms. “Only in the last seven or eight years have we tried to capture all the nuances of differences between the ways the rich and the poor experience the world psychologically,” Dr. Keltner said. “It’s a really new science.”

Now some might argue that class warfare–declared by the rich against he poor, in the guise of defending our liberties from government interference–is is well underway, and that the results suggest that the aggressors are winning. But what of the science involved in this study? Is it persuasive, and if so, what conclusions can we draw from it.

“Upper-class people, in spite of all their advantages, suffer empathy deficits,” Dr. Keltner said. “And there are enormous consequences.” In other words, a high-powered lawyer or chief executive, ill equipped to pick up on more-subtle emotions, doesn’t make for a sympathetic boss.

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Category : The Lead

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  1. John B. Chilton

    My mind went to ways — to the current debate in Washington, and about The Episcopal Church.

    A few months back The Cafe noted a study showing that Episcopalians were the richest Christian denomination ranked by household income. Despite our sincere belief that “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” I suspect we don’t come across as very warm and friendly to visitors — we turn inward and talk to each other during coffee hour. And a deficit in reading emotions could be a factor. We may think we’re open to newcomers, but the reality may be different.

  2. DnWillets

    John, I must have missed that report. I’m sorry to hear that!

  3. Michael Russell

    More useful reading is the “Psychopath Test” that lists 20 characteristics of empathy-less people, ie psychopaths. The author suggests that there is a higher percentage of psychopaths among corporate leaders and politicians than the general public.

    It was a recent Pew study that showed we were both the wealthiest and best educated Christian denomination.

  4. Bob Weaver

    Less empathy may make some socially negative choices easier, but each of us is still challenged to figure out the differences between right and wrong. We’re still responsible for what we decide to do.

    For the empathy-less, being a psychopath may not be the only option.

    I found this book interesting: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

    How we manage our deficits matters.

    Bob Weaver

  5. Benedict Varnum

    I also wondered about whether the “pathway” is reversed: is it that gaining wealth somehow engenders a need to protect it? Or does the journey towards it prevent us from seeing those who haven’t made that journey as neighbors and common human beings?

    Or is the pathway reversed: that there is some kind of wealth-accruing advantage created by a lack of empathy. More focus on abstract concepts, such as wealth? A higher ranking of security needs over identification with others?

    I’m curious about these studies.

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