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Understanding Our National Empathy Deficit

Research & Commentary
August 11, 2011


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

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.

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