Do Rich People Just Care Less?

Recent research suggests powerful people pay little attention to those below them. Mindful's Editor-in-Chief looks at "the empathy gap."

Photo: hill.josh/Flickr.com

A recent New York Times Opinionator piece, written by Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (excerpted in the upcoming issue of Mindful magazine), looks at the growing body of research showing how people at the top display little empathy to those lower down on the social ladder.

Goleman mentions, for example, a 2008 study conducted by psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California-Berkeley, that shows how when two complete strangers are in conversation about difficulties they have been through—the death of a loved one, failure—the higher-status participants showed less attention to their partner’s pain. Other studies point to poor people being better attuned to interpersonal relations, and giving more.

Among the higher-status individuals, Goleman says, there is a clear tuning out of the needs of those below. He writes:

“This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.”

Goleman suggests that this research doesn’t just point to an interesting observation about how we interact with each other. He argues that the lack of empathy exacerbates the soaring inequality in the United States and that “reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.”

The results of a few studies does not close the book on the question of whether well-off people have an automatic predilection to be heartless, and certainly no reasonable scientist would suggest that someone’s bank balance serves as an empathy barometer. Nevertheless, in the age when the top 1% controls 40% of the wealth, how much the wealthy care about the welfare of everyone else is an important question. We have seen small signs suggesting that some people at the top might be thinking differently—such as the packed meditation class at the Davos World Economic Forum or Panera Bread’s pay-what-you-can-afford Panera Cares outlets.

Of course, empathy starts at home, whoever you are and whatever kind of money you have, which is why we keep track of teachings and instructions for cultivating kindness and compassion, such as these practices for “befriending” others and our collection of articles looking at recent research on how we cooperate. Dan Goleman’s “Empathy 101” talks about the different types of empathy we can cultivate. Our partners at the Greater Good Science Center also have a helpful piece called “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.”

The problem of rapidly increasing inequality is a scourge of our times, and mindfulness is no magic potion that solves it and renders it irrelevant. But the uptake of mindfulness in the business community and beyond suggests that leaders are looking for new ways to define success that includes well-being, caring, and taking time for what matters—not just the bottom line. While Goleman mentions Dacher Keltner’s research on how rich people are indeed less empathetic than poorer people, Keltner’s overall forecast for how we will progress as a society is actually less than grim. In the August issue of Mindful magazine, Keltner talks about how he’s now seeing a “sea-change in scientific literature” on evolution that suggests people are inherently cooperative—a far cry from the dog-eat-dog understanding of human nature that’s generally ascribed to Darwin and celebrated by far too many as the way to be fully human.

What do you think? Does being rich make you less empathetic?

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