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Institute for Policy Studies

Understanding Our National Empathy Deficit

The life experiences of the wealthy, new psychological research suggests, leaves the rich less compassionate and altruistic than people of more modest means.

Patriotism, as Samuel Johnson suggested long ago, may be the last refuge of scoundrels. Philanthropy, on the other hand, has always been the first refuge of the rich and powerful.

The more wealth the wealthy accumulate, rationalizers for the rich love to contend, the more they will shower down on those in need.

People from lower class backgrounds, researchers contend, have a much better shot at becoming empathetic.

In fact, little of the philanthropy wealthy people do on a regular basis flows to people in actual need. Far more goes to bankrolling new wings of fine-arts museums — plastered with the names of the donors, of course — or subsidizing mahogany-windowed new dormitories at elite alma maters.

University of California social scientists Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Dacher Keltner have just published new research in the Current Directions in Psychological Science journal that takes a deeper look at this phenomenon. They’ve dug into the experimental literature — and conducted experiments of their own — to better fathom how class impacts our humanity.

The three researchers have run people of means — and people without them — through an assortment of exercises and tests that track for compassion and caring. They’ve had their subjects play games, for instance, that involve giving away real money. The various experiments all show a consistent pattern.

“Lower class people just show more empathy,” co-author Dacher Keltner noted in an interview last week, “no matter how you look at it.”

The empathy here, Keltner and his colleagues stress, comes from real-life experience, not anything innate.

People of modest means, the scholars point out, don’t have the resources to control their own environments. They have to depend on others. They learn, in the process, how to read other’s emotions. They become more empathetic.

People from wealthy households, by contrast, don’t have to depend nearly as much on others. Their wealth and “higher station in life” give them the luxury of focusing much more single-mindedly on self. They have less need to understand what other people are feeling. Over time, they feel and show less empathy.

This dynamic, observes Keltner, has clear implications for trickle-down public policy approaches that expect the rich to demonstrate a hefty dose of nobless oblige. That expectation, he notes bluntly, rates as “improbable, psychologically.”

“Our data,” Keltner sums up, “say you cannot rely on the wealthy to give back.”

Our society’s scoundrels no doubt disagree.

  • Edwin Rutsch

    May I
    suggest further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.

    Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and
    information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles,
    conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and
    much more about empathy and compassion.

  • Paul Roden

    Where is the rich’s “compassionate conservatism”?  Where is their concern for the commons and the common good of all?  Why do they hate taxes and government so much?  Who bailed them out? The government did with our tax money, and not that no more taxes are coming in, we have to suffer more when we need social services, training, and education. And the rich and their puppets in Washington say we are “broke” and that “government doesn’t work.”  They say we don’t need unemployment insurance, to extend it or increase taxes to fund it because it keeps people from looking of jobs and cajoles them.  We don’t have a spending problem, we have a “greed” problem.  The rich are stingy and don’t give a damn about our country or anyone else but their rich selves.  Tax the rich more now.  If they don’t like it, leave the country and take your companies with them.  Just don’t expect anymore government contracts.  Get the rich off of welfare now!

  • bamabrasileira

    it makes sense to me! people who want success in life do not waste a great deal of time with losers or less fortunate people whining about why they cannot make life work for them, nor do they (we) care. instead, they tend to focus more interest and energy on problem solving, personal enjoyment (often with other winners), moving forward in life.  these studies also rarely (if ever) take into account how much a successful person has to listen to those with less. after a while, one does get sick of having a perfectly good day ruined by someone moving through self pity or asking for a favor (and YES – this does happen a LOT more to people that others perceive as being successful or having help to offer). it is a survival strategy. the  poor, less fortunate, or common among us do not have a less developed emothional buffer because very little is expected of them in life. but if you have power, like it or not, you DO have to be more discerning about who you let into your world. and if success and moving forward in life are important to you, you are more inclined so share your space with like-minded people. if none are available, then spending time alone with your own thoughts and ideas if often more enjoyable than spending  it with people who cannot fathom who you are as a person due to the fact that they have not had equal life experiences. also, has anyone EVER done a study on how much poor or less fortunate people empathize with the plight of rich or powerful people, or the different points of focus for each of these groups. if they did, they might find that while one poor person is feeling sorry for himself because a rich person will not give a free meal, help their kid through college, or listen to them whine about how they cannot pay the rent, the powerful person is more concerned about how to keep is business afloat so that he or she can maintain  his or her lifestyle (which IS very important to EVERYONE) and keep 10-20-100-500-1000+ people in jobs! i HATE these studies as they so often (ironically) do not provide a truly balanced or empathetic view of the rich or powerful people! we must not forget that these are mortal human beings – not GODS!

    • phed up

      If those rich people could keep their companies afloat with 0 employees, they would. They do not provide jobs out of the goodness of their hearts because they are such swell people. They employ only as many as they need for as little as they can pay them.
      Even if they do employ thousands, they didn’t do it as a favor to the rest of us so they should stop expecting thank you cards.

  • ebskye

    Scientific American, Sept./Oct., 2010 article “Inside The Mind of a Psychopath” describes brain function as a reason some people have empathy and some do not. “….One of the most striking peculiarities of psychopaths is that they lack
    empathy; they are able to shake off as mere tinsel the most universal
    social obligations. They lie and manipulate yet feel no compunction or
    regrets—in fact, they don’t feel particularly deeply about anything at

  • frustrated reader

    I’m having trouble reading this article because there’s this stupid “share” thing with the Facebook, Twitter, etc symbols on it covering the first few letters of each line of text. “Because I can” doesn’t mean you should.

  • Bow Arm

    “We Can’t Rely on the Kindness of Billionaires” by David Nasaw is an outstanding discussion of problems with philanthropy by the wealthy.
    Nasaw writes near the end of his commentary: “My greatest fear is that the growth of private philanthropy may be both symptom and cause of our weakening faith in democratic government. (…) There is nothing intrinsically wrong with trying to raise private money for public purposes, but we cannot let such efforts distract us from pressuring government to do its best to save the environment, adequately fund our public parks, schools and universities, and provide medical care and support for the weakest among us.”
    [Published in The Washington Post, September 23, 2007]

  • GOPatriot

    My anecdote isn’t about philanthropy but is still germane: When I delivered newspapers as a kid in the early 70’s I learned fast to swap away the streets on my route with the biggest houses for the more middle-class streets. That was because Joe-Sixpack always tipped the best. The worst tippers? People who (I later learned) had significant inherited wealth.

  • Sirpoastaloticus

    The more spoiled you are the less suffering you experience and the harder it is to empathize with others. Eat the rich.

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