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The rich really are different, mostly in disagreeable ways

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

The roiling debate over economics, taxes, debt ceilings and defaults that is now rocking the stock market and affecting our financial stability as a nation is largely rooted in an upper class "ideology of self-interest,” according to psychologist and social scientist Dacher Keltner. Which is why his research on the relative lack of empathy among the rich is so relevant to us today.

The professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has done 12 separate studies measuring empathy among various socioeconomic classes, and what he has found is that no matter how you slice it, the rich always come out looking less empathetic, less altruistic, and generally more selfish. “Lower class people just show more empathy, more prosocial behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it,” he added.

Keltner and co-authors are publishing their findings in an article entitled “Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm,” in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science this week. Their essential thesis is that “upper-class rank perceptions trigger a focus away from the context toward the self” – which is another way of saying that rich people are more likely to think about themselves.

The authors interpret the findings to say that wealthy individuals tend to believe that personal and political outcomes are directly related to individual behavior and a good work ethic. Because they are privileged enough to take ease, comfort and learning and financial opportunities for granted, they tend to gloss over the ways in which family connections, money and education have helped them. This, in turn, leads them to denigrate the role of government, and thus to vigorously oppose taxes to fund it.

If your hackles are rising at Keltner’s propositions, consider this: 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?”

And according to the Gallup poll, 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.

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What Keltner does not address is why so many middle- and lower- income Americans parrot the beliefs of the rich as they continue to suffer further economic erosion under the very pro-rich policies that they helped enact. But perhaps that is a separate topic.

I am ever so inclined to interject some thoughts on Prosperity Theology here but will spare the reader a massive digression and let him or her check it for themselves through the link provided. Suffice it to say that it is a stealth ideology designed to “sell” the American Dream to the poor, who await each day for manna to come knocking on their doorstep. Call it the Christian version of the caste system – it’s your fault if you are poor. Do what you must to get ahead, and maybe God will smile on you. If not, you must not be worthy.

Despite what they may ostensibly believe, however, lower class people have to depend on others for survival, Keltner argues. So they learn “prosocial behaviors.” They read people better, empathize more with others, and they give more to those in need. Poor people are consistently shown to be better at deciphering the emotions of people in photographs.

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.

Keltner has also studied vagus nerve activation in relation to socioeconomic stratification. 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, for example, some show that low-income people give more, but other studies show the opposite. Such surveys, however, are subject to many interpretive errors. How is charitable giving measured? Is it the sheer amount that is considered, in which case the rich can outstrip the poor in an instant? Also, how does motivation influence the altruism scale in charitable giving? After all, the rich often give to charity as a tax break.

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.