Rich less empathetic than poor, study says

Published: Thursday, Sept. 29 2011 8:09 p.m. MDT

Shutterstock.com

Enlarge photo»

Rich people are less empathetic, less altruistic and more selfish than those of the lower classes, according to new research from University of California at Berkeley and at San Francisco.

In an article published by the Association for Psychological Science, co-authors Michael W. Kraus of UC-San Francisco and Dacher Keltner and Paul K. Piff of the UC-Berkely found people from lower classes were better at reading other people's emotions, which is one scientific measure of empathy. If you can't recognize what someone is going through, they argue, it's hard to respond to their needs.

"A lot of what we see is a baseline orientation for the lower class to be more empathetic and the upper class to be less (so)," Kraus, a postdoctoral student, told Time.

Kraus attributes the phenomenon to environment.

"Lower-class environments are much different from upper-class environments," he said. "Lower-class individuals have to respond chronically to a number of vulnerabilities and social threats."

The lives of the poor are "defined by threat," Keltner said. Without education and resources, people are forced to cooperate with others and build alliances. As a result, people with less money are better at reading other people's emotions and more likely to act altruistically.

"They give more and help more," Keltner said in a press release. "If someone's in need, they'll respond. What I think is really interesting about that is, it kind of shows there's all this strength to the lower-class identity: greater empathy, more altruism, and finer attunement to other people."

Wealth gives people the "freedom to focus on the self," he said. In a series of 12 studies, researchers found wealthy people don't read emotions well, hoard resources and are less generous than they could be. In one study, for example, people were given the opportunity to share "money" with a partner, MSNBC reported. Participants from the lower classes gave more. In another, researchers observed wealthy people were more likely to appear distracted, check their cell phones, doodle or avoid eye contact during conversation than their less-well-off peers.

The rich tend to gloss over the way family connections, money and education contribute to their lives, resulting in less empathy, Keltner told MSNBC.

"They think that economic success and political outcomes, and personal outcomes, have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic," he said.

Study authors believe their research should play into public policy debates.

"Americans, although this is shifting a bit, kind of think class is irrelevant," Keltner said. "I think our studies are saying the opposite: This is a profound part of who we are."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com twitter: elizMstuart

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS