The Empathy Ceiling: The Rich Are Different — And Not In a Good Way, Studies Suggest

by Brian Alexander,  August 10, 2011 by MSNBC

Excerpt

Studies suggest the ‘Haves’ show less empathy than ‘Have-nots’… Their life experience makes them less empathetic, less altruistic, and generally more selfish…the philosophical battle over economics, taxes, debt ceilings and defaults…is partly rooted in an upper class “ideology of self-interest.”… rich people are more likely to think about themselves. “They think that economic success and political outcomes, and personal outcomes, have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic”…
Because the rich gloss over the ways family connections, money and education helped, they come to denigrate the role of government and vigorously oppose taxes to fund it…There is one interesting piece of evidence showing that many rich people may not be selfish as much as willfully clueless, and therefore unable to make the cognitive link between need and resources…

Full text

The ‘Haves’ show less empathy than ‘Have-nots’

Psychologist and social scientist Dacher Keltner says the rich really are different, and not in a good way: Their life experience makes them less empathetic, less altruistic, and generally more selfish.

In fact, he says, the philosophical battle over economics, taxes, debt ceilings and defaults that are now roiling the stock market is partly rooted in an upper class “ideology of self-interest.”

“We have now done 12 separate studies measuring empathy in every way imaginable, social behavior in every way, and some work on compassion and it’s the same story,” he said. “Lower class people just show more empathy, more prosocial behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it.”

In an academic version of a Depression-era Frank Capra movie, Keltner and co-authors of an article called “Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm,” published this week in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, argue that “upper-class rank perceptions trigger a focus away from the context toward the self….”

In other words, rich people are more likely to think about themselves. “They think that economic success and political outcomes, and personal outcomes, have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic,” said Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Because the rich gloss over the ways family connections, money and education helped, they come to denigrate the role of government and vigorously oppose taxes to fund it.

“I will quote from the Tea Party hero Ayn Rand: “‘It is the morality of altruism that men have to reject,’” he said.

Whether or not Keltner is right, there certainly is a “let them cake” vibe in the air. Last week The New York Times reported on booming sales of luxury goods, with stores keeping waiting lists for $9,000 coats and the former chairman of Saks saying, “If a designer shoe goes up from $800 to $860, who notices?”

According to Gallup, Americans earning more than $90,000 per year continued to increase their consumer spending in July while middle- and lower-income Americans remained stalled, even as the upper classes argue that they can’t pay any more taxes. Meanwhile, the gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us continues to grow wider, with over 80 percent of the nation’s financial wealth controlled by about 20 percent of the people.

Unlike the rich, lower class people have to depend on others for survival, Keltner argued. So they learn “prosocial behaviors.” They read people better, empathize more with others, and they give more to those in need.

That’s the moral of Capra movies like “You Can’t Take It With You,” in which a plutocrat comes to learn the value of community and family. But Keltner, author of the book “Born To Be Good: The Science of A Meaningful Life,” doesn’t rely on sentiment to make his case.

He points to his own research and that of others. For example, lower class subjects are better at deciphering the emotions of people in photographs than are rich people.

In video recordings of conversations, rich people are more likely to appear distracted, checking cell phones, doodling, avoiding eye contact, while low-income people make eye contact and nod their heads more frequently signaling engagement.

In one test, for example, Keltner and other colleagues had 115 people play the “dictator game,” a standard trial of economic behavior. “Dictators” were paired with an unseen partner, given ten “points” that represented money, and told they could share as many or as few of the points with the partner as they desired. Lower-class participants gave more even after controlling for gender, age or ethnicity.

Keltner has also studied vagus nerve activation. The vagus nerve helps the brain record and respond to emotional inputs. When subjects are exposed to pictures of starving children, for example, their vagus nerve typically becomes more active as measured by electrodes on their chests and a sensor band around their waists. In recent tests, yet to be published, Keltner has found that those from lower-class backgrounds have more intense activation.

Other studies from other researchers have not produced the clear-cut results Keltner uses to advance his argument. In surveys of charitable giving, some show that low-income people give more, but other studies show the opposite.

“The research regarding income and helping behaviors has always been little bit mixed,” explained Meredith McGinley, a professor of psychology at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University.

Then there is the problem of Tea Partiers’ own class position. While they are funded by the wealthy, many do not identify themselves as wealthy (though there is dispute on the real demographics). Still, a strong allegiance to the American Dream can lead even regular folks to overestimate their own self-reliance in the same way as rich people.

As behavioral economist Mark Wilhelm of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis pointed out, most people could quickly tell you how much they paid in taxes last year but few could put a dollar amount on how they benefited from government by, say, driving on interstate highways, taking drugs gleaned from federally funded medical research, or using inventions created by people educated in public schools.

There is one interesting piece of evidence showing that many rich people may not be selfish as much as willfully clueless, and therefore unable to make the cognitive link between need and resources. Last year, research at Duke and Harvard universities showed that regardless of political affiliation or income, Americans tended to think wealth distribution ought to be more equal.

The problem? Rich people wrongly believed it already was.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2011/08/10-7

Why Inequality Is Bad for the One Percent

by Jason Marsh Common Good, September 25, 2012

Excerpt

…a new line of psychological research suggests there’s another victim of inequality: the rich themselves.

In a series of studies, researchers have found that attaining high social status impairs key social and emotional skills. It makes people less interested in connecting with others. It hinders their ability to read other people’s emotions. It makes them less compassionate and less generous…These are skills that research has also linked to leading a happy, meaningful life…What’s more, this research carries troubling implications for rich and poor alike: that inequality may be self-perpetuating, because as our society grows more unequal, the rich will be less likely to care about the poor. Taken together, these studies suggest why inequality should be a concern for anyone who cares about the health and well-being of American society as a whole.

Wealth hurts empathy

A few decades ago, the typical CEO used to earn about 30 times more than his or her employees; now he or she earns 110 times more

Indeed, a recent PewResearchCentersurvey found that Americans see inequality as the greatest source of social conflict in the country today

“There are powerful psycho-social effects of inequality,” says Richard Wilkinson…recent book, The Spirit Level. “As status differences grow, we worry more about status insecurity, we get widespread anxiety about self-esteem, and that brings rising rates of mental illness and depression.”…

…higher status affects other matters of the heart: It makes people psychologically disconnected from those around them… people of higher socioeconomic status (SES) were worse at reading other people’s emotions—a skill known as “empathic accuracy,” a basic part of empathy…

…The rich aren’t just less inclined to connect with the riff-raff. They’re less inclined to connect with anyone…

Being compassionate, having empathic accuracy, being trusting and cooperative—these are keys to social connection and, in turn, happiness,” says UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher Paul Piff, whose own research has found that people of higher SES were less willing to share money with a stranger or make charitable donations

Indeed, perhaps the dominant finding to emerge from positive psychology research over the past decade is that our happiness (and health) is largely determined by the quality and quantity of our social connections. Perhaps that’s why “pro-social” behaviors and emotions—compassion, empathy, altruism—have been so strongly linked to happiness…

These findings offer an explanation for why, once Americans attain an annual income of $75,000, more money doesn’t seem to bring more happiness: Beyond that point, perhaps our elevated sense of status brings with it the harmful social and emotional effects that offset the joys of more money

The happiest countries are the ones with the most equality, like the nations of Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. These countries also rank among the highest in an index of compassion

mental illness is three times more common in unequal countries; infant mortality rates are also much higher, and life expectancy is significantly lower. Trust and social cohesion—important factors in happiness—are significantly higher in more equal societies….

inequality may be self-perpetuating: The lack of compassion the rich feel might make them less likely to out look for the less fortunate, thereby increasing the gap between rich and poor—and the worse this gap gets, the research suggests, the less inclined the rich may be to do anything about it…

it’s useful to think of inequality not as something that eradicates empathy in the upper class but as a barrier to empathy—and possibly to happiness—that they can work to overcome…

hierarchies are a part of life, and eliminating inequality isn’t a realistic goal. What really matters for the happiness of the rich, the poor, and everyone in between is to prevent the kind of gross social stratification we’re seeing in theUnited Statestoday…

So where does that leave Mitt Romney? The empathy gap has not been good for his campaign: A new Pew Research Center poll shows that he trails President Obama by eight percentage points—and 43 points in the area of “connects well with ordinary Americans.” For his own sake, Romney might do well to address inequality.

Full Text

What Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” video reveals about the links between inequality, compassion, and happiness.

The video of Mitt Romney deriding the 47 percent of Americans “who are dependent upon government” has re-ignited a debate about social class in America, roughly one year after the Occupy Wall Street movement first took to the streets to protest rising inequality.

At a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser, Romney scoffed at that 47 percent “who pay no income tax” and “believe they are victims.” Romney’s comments upset many Americans because he seemed to be attacking some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Aside from whether they actually “believe they are victims,” research has consistently shown that people lower on the social totem pole suffer significantly worse mental and physical health than those better off, including higher rates of heart disease, depression, suicide, several forms of cancer, and death.

Yet a new line of psychological research suggests there’s another victim of inequality: the rich themselves.

In a series of studies, researchers have found that attaining high social status impairs key social and emotional skills. It makes people less interested in connecting with others. It hinders their ability to read other people’s emotions. It makes them less compassionate and less generous.

Indeed, Romney’s comments could make him the poster child for these social and emotional deficits. And here’s why the people at that $50,000-a-plate dinner should care: These are skills that research has also linked to leading a happy, meaningful life. So as the super rich in this country assume an ever-loftier status above the 47 percent (or the 99 percent), they risk depleting their own reserves of happiness.

What’s more, this research carries troubling implications for rich and poor alike: that inequality may be self-perpetuating, because as our society grows more unequal, the rich will be less likely to care about the poor. Taken together, these studies suggest why inequality should be a concern for anyone who cares about the health and well-being of American society as a whole.

Wealth hurts empathy

A few decades ago, the typical CEO used to earn about 30 times more than his or her employees; now he or she earns 110 times more. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the top one percent of Americans saw their after tax-income grow by 278 percent between 1979 and 2007; over the same period, the middle 20 percent of Americans saw their incomes rise by just 35 percent—and the bottom fifth saw just 18 percent growth.

Indeed, a recent PewResearchCentersurvey found that Americans see inequality as the greatest source of social conflict in the country today, eclipsing conflicts around age, race, and immigration. Two-thirds of respondents said there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between rich and poor, roughly a 40 percent increase from just two-and-a-half years ago.

The Economist

Researchers’ concerns about inequality have generally focused on the plight of the poor and the shrinking middle class, exploring how inequality hurts the mental and physical health of the less fortunate.

“There are powerful psycho-social effects of inequality,” says Richard Wilkinson, a British epidemiologist who has spent years researching these effects, which he documents at length in his recent book, The Spirit Level. “As status differences grow, we worry more about status insecurity, we get widespread anxiety about self-esteem, and that brings rising rates of mental illness and depression.”

Originally, it should be noted, researchers expected to find these kinds of effects among the upper class—heart disease was thought to be “the executive’s disease,” brought on by all the responsibilities of his status.

Instead, they’ve found that higher status affects other matters of the heart: It makes people psychologically disconnected from those around them.

For instance, in a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that people of higher socioeconomic status (SES) were worse at reading other people’s emotions—a skill known as “empathic accuracy,” a basic part of empathy.

The study’s primary author, Michael Kraus, now an assistant professor of psychology at theUniversity ofIllinois, believes these results show how higher social status makes people more self-absorbed.

“As you become more wealthy, you become more focused on the self,” he says. “When I think I am higher on the social class ladder relative to others, I start to think about all the personal freedoms and opportunities I have relative to others, and it is this process that makes me less accurate in reading emotions.”

But isn’t there a chance that these differences between rich and poor are innate—perhaps the rich get further in life because they’re less preoccupied with other people’s needs?

To test this idea, the researchers—including Dacher Keltner, the Greater Good Science Center’s faculty director—manipulated people’s sense of status, making them feel higher or lower on the social ladder.

Regardless of their actual SES, people temporarily made to feel upper class had a harder time reading others’ emotions; people made to feel lower class showed better empathic accuracy.

This suggests that there’s something about the experience of high status that affects how we connect with others emotionally. In other words, a lack of empathy among the rich is a natural byproduct of inequality. 

Further evidence comes from a study published late last year in the journal Emotion, which found that upper-class college students reported feeling less compassion than other students when they watched a video about children suffering from cancer. The heart rate of the non-rich students slowed down as they watched the video—a physiological sign of compassion. The rich hearts didn’t show that reaction.

“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” says study lead author Jennifer Stellar, a UC Berkeley graduate student and former Greater Good Science Center fellow (Kraus and Keltner served as co-authors). “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering.”

Indeed, a 2009 study by Kraus and Keltner suggests that the upper classes are less attuned to social cues in general. This study, published in Psychological Science, found that college students from wealthier families appeared less engaged in conversations than did people of lower SES. They doodled while the other person was talking, rummaged through their backpacks, frequently checked their cell phone—in other words, they showed blatant disinterest in the other person, even if that person was also wealthy. They were even less likely to nod their head or laugh in response to something the other person said.

Using only college students in studies like this is usually seen as a limitation. But in this case, it shows how the psychological effects of status are so great that they can even make people tune out peers with whom they ostensibly have a lot in common. These weren’t people from different social galaxies; they were roughly the same age, part of the same collegiate community.

This underscores one of the biggest implications of this whole line of research: The rich aren’t just less inclined to connect with the riff-raff. They’re less inclined to connect with anyone.

“We’re showing a difference in behavior, regardless of who the wealthy are interacting with,” says Kraus. “It has implications for the wealthy interacting with the wealthy, as well as with the poor.”

As their own status and sense of self balloons, then, the rich risk disconnecting from other people—and that might include people within their class, or even their own family, not to mention people of other classes.

Wealth hurts happiness

All these results aren’t just bad news for people who might encounter indifference and apathy from the rich. They’re bad news for the rich themselves. The qualities that seem to be impaired by elevated status are the qualities that research has strongly linked to long-term happiness.

Being compassionate, having empathic accuracy, being trusting and cooperative—these are keys to social connection and, in turn, happiness,” says UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher Paul Piff, whose own research has found that people of higher SES were less willing to share money with a stranger or make charitable donations. (However, when they were made to feel lower status, they became more generous; the opposite was true for people made to feel high status—they became stingier.)

Indeed, perhaps the dominant finding to emerge from positive psychology research over the past decade is that our happiness (and health) is largely determined by the quality and quantity of our social connections. Perhaps that’s why “pro-social” behaviors and emotions—compassion, empathy, altruism—have been so strongly linked to happiness.

Consider: Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, has consistently found that people report feeling happier after doing nice things for others. Several neuroscience studies have found that giving to others activates pleasure regions of the brain. Research by psychologists Lara Aknin and Elizabeth Dunn has even suggested that spending money on others makes you happier than spending on yourself. And a Canadian study published last year, led by Myriam Mongrain, found that after people supported others compassionately for just five to 15 minutes every day for a week, the compassionate people reported significant gains in happiness and self-esteem six months later.

“We have pretty strong evidence that doing good things for others makes you happier,” says Lyubomirsky. “When you do kind acts for others, you feel better about yourself, you feel more optimistic, you see people as being more interconnected, and you strengthen your connections to others, who may help you in times of need. All of those things combine to increase happiness.”

These findings offer an explanation for why, once Americans attain an annual income of $75,000, more money doesn’t seem to bring more happiness: Beyond that point, perhaps our elevated sense of status brings with it the harmful social and emotional effects that offset the joys of more money.

Sure enough, one recent study found that people who were wealthier, or were just temporarily made to feel wealthier, were worse at savoring everyday pleasures—a key to happiness, according to prior research.

According to the authors of that study, which was published in Psychological Science, the results suggest that “the emotional benefits that money gives with one hand (i.e., access to pleasurable experiences), it takes away with the other by undercutting the ability to relish the small delights of daily living.”

In general, though, research suggests that money in itself isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s status—one’s relative place above others in your society.

If money were the problem, the poorest countries would be the happiest, but they’re not. The key, instead, seems to be inequality: The happiest countries are the ones with the most equality, like the nations of Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. These countries also rank among the highest in an index of compassion created byUniversity ofMinnesota researcher Ron Anderson.

By contrast, countries with more inequality, like the United States and the United Kingdom, have significantly higher rates of health and social problems: By Wilkinson’s analysis, mental illness is three times more common in unequal countries; infant mortality rates are also much higher, and life expectancy is significantly lower. Trust and social cohesion—important factors in happiness—are significantly higher in more equal societies.

John Gottman, the country’s leading marriage researcher, talking at a Greater Good Science Center event about the relationship between equality, trust, and healthy communities.

And unfortunately, the upshot of Kraus, Piff, and their colleagues’ research is that inequality may be self-perpetuating: The lack of compassion the rich feel might make them less likely to out look for the less fortunate, thereby increasing the gap between rich and poor—and the worse this gap gets, the research suggests, the less inclined the rich may be to do anything about it.

What can we do about it?

So if we can’t expect the upper class to spontaneously look out for the lower class, what can we do to address some of these psychological effects—for the benefit of rich and poor alike?

First, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a lost cause. Recall that in Kraus’s study, when people just visualized themselves as being lower on the social ladder, their skills of empathy improved.

“The encouraging thing about our work is that just a little shift can bring real improvements in empathy,” says Kraus.

It might be easy to engineer these shifts in a lab, but there are some grassroots efforts to engineer them in real-life as well.

One example are “poverty simulations,” programs in which high-powered people are made to assume the identity of a low-status person for a few hours, trying to navigate life’s challenges from their point of view.

“People say they feel completely crushed by the experience,” says Tiela Chalmers, aSan Francisco lawyer who has been running poverty simulations at law firms around the country over the last five years. “They come out of it with a more empathic view of things.”

In that light, it’s useful to think of inequality not as something that eradicates empathy in the upper class but as a barrier to empathy—and possibly to happiness—that they can work to overcome.

One way to do that, aruges Piff, is through volunteering, which encourages contact between people of different backgrounds. Research suggests that this kind of contact can make it easier to identify with people from whom we’re often divided, whether by race, ethnicity, or social class. On the other hand, feeling isolated from other people and more focused on yourself is what stunts pro-social behavior.

In other words, insularity is an enemy of empathy.

“The rich aren’t bad people, they just live in insular worlds,” Piff says. “If you can do things to make your world less insular—which could be what you read, who you fraternize with—then you’re going to open yourself up to developing skills that contribute to a happy life.”

Indeed, a new study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that wealthier Americans donate a significantly smaller percentage of their income to charity than do the middle class, and when a high number of rich people are clustered in one neighborhood, that community’s giving rate is even lower. However, when they live in more socioeconomically diverse areas, the rich become more charitable.

Of course another approach to reducing the empathy gap is to target inequality directly. How to do that is a matter of partisan debate. Conservative proposals focus more on breaking down cultural class divides, such as Coming Apart author Charles Murray’s suggestion to eliminate unpaid internships and Senator John McCain’s call for a national service corps that makes people of different social classes work together in the same way that military conscription once did.

Liberals, on the other hand, emphasize redistributing wealth and increasing the welfare of the less affluent, through progressive taxation or corporate policies that prevent top earners from taking home too great a share of their company’s profits.

Ultimately, argues Piff, hierarchies are a part of life, and eliminating inequality isn’t a realistic goal. What really matters for the happiness of the rich, the poor, and everyone in between is to prevent the kind of gross social stratification we’re seeing in theUnited Statestoday.

“Runaway inequality makes it harder for people to relate to those who have different backgrounds from themselves,” he says. “But if you’re able to reduce the extremes that exist between the haves and the have-nots, you’re going to go a long way toward closing the compassion and empathy gap.”

So where does that leave Mitt Romney? The empathy gap has not been good for his campaign: A new Pew Research Center poll shows that he trails President Obama by eight percentage points—and 43 points in the area of “connects well with ordinary Americans.” For his own sake, Romney might do well to address inequality.

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_inequality_is_bad_for_the_one_percent

Compassion and empathy

“Compassion is the glue holding the world together.” Joan Chittister, August 3, 2009 benetvision@benetvision.orgLos Angeles Times

The Power of Compassion — Karen Armstrong Moyers Moment, March 13, 2009 -  “My work has continually brought me back to the notion of compassion. Whichever religious tradition I study, I find at the heart of it is the idea of feeling with the other, experiencing with the other, compassion. And every single one of the major world religions has developed its own version of the Golden Rule. Don’t do to others what you would not like them to do to you….We’ve got to do better than this. Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn’t mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what’s motivating the other, learning about their grievances.

The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, Interview by Amanda Gefter, New Scientist.com, February 17, 2010 0 …before we can save ourselves from climate change we have to break a vicious circle and embrace a new model of society based on scientists’ new understanding of human nature…We have to think deeper, to think as a human family… Empathy is the invisible social glue that allows a complex individuated society to remain integrated…

Why is the Charter for Compassion so Important? by Karen Armstrong, Huffington Post.com, November 18, 2008 – … at the core of every single one of the world religions is the virtue of compassion…Each one of the world religions has developed its own version of the Golden Rule — Do not treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself — and maintained that this is the prime religious duty… wherever I go — east or west — I find that people are longing for a more compassionate world. The aim of the Charter for Compassion is to change the conversation, make it cool to be compassionate, and bring the Golden Rule back to the center of religious life…We need to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we only treat other nations as we would wish to be treated ourselves. We need a global democracy, where everybody’s voice is heard with sympathy and absolute respect. Any ideology — religious or secular — that breeds hatred or contempt is failing the test of our time, because if we do not build a more compassionate global community it is unlikely that we will have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.

The Empathy Ceiling: The Rich Are Different — And Not In a Good Way by Brian Alexander, MSNBC, August 10, 2011

Where are the compassionate conservatives? by Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, September 15, 2011

Why Don’t We Have a National Narrative of Empathy? by Ira Chermus, History News Network/Truthout.org, June 11, 2010

The Compassionate Instinct by Dacher Keltner, GreaterGoodScienceCenter, Spring 2004

Change Agent Karen Arm­strong argues for prac­ti­cal com­pas­sion — inter­view with Heidi Bruce,  published in YES! Mag­a­zine, posted on Chris­t­ian Sci­ence, April 17, 2012

The Charter for Compassion