With Occupy Wall Street (and many other US cities) occupying a lot of national attention, I thought it would be nice to reflect on what we know about social class and empathy. On average, are rich folks more or less empathetic than their lower income counterparts? Some recent research can help to shed light on this issue, although it is just the beginning of what I hope will be many more studies on the topic.
One recent paper (1) found that people from lower social class backgrounds, however that was defined (i.e. as income, as education, or subjective sense), were better able to read the emotional facial expressions of others. This skill has been called "empathic accuracy." Although it is also possible to be good at reading others' emotions for more self-serving reasons (i.e. to get something for oneself, or to avoid trouble from powerful others), what was clear from this paper was that people from higher social classes were not good at knowing what others were feeling. That is revealing.
Another interesting paper examined the relationship between social class and giving to others or helping others (2). This research found that again regardless of how social class was measured, those who were from the lower rungs of the social class ladder gave more money and time to others within laboratory settings, and that this giving behavior was motivated by their higher compassion and egalitarian views. Interestingly, although 3 of the 4 studies in this paper were conducted in the United States, one of them was also conducted in Canada, which is a more economically egalitarian society. Despite the differences in economic philosophies across the two countries, the results were the same: wealthier people gave less than their less wealthy counterparts.
A tiny piece of hope glimmers from the final study in this paper, which found that it was possible to make higher social class act as prosocially as people of lower social class if they were first induced to feel compassion. In other words, lower social class people helped out whether or not they felt compassion, but higher social class people only helped out if they felt compassion. It seems to me as though the 99% are being wise in quietly sharing their stories written on pieces of paper (3). If the 1% are paying attention, perhaps they will feel a sense of compassion at the stories of suffering and desperation.
So how do we know it is money that is causing this unempathetic behavior rather than something else that goes along with being in a high social position? Well, in other studies, researchers have found that directly exposing people to images or reminders of money dramatically alters their behavior (4). Money makes people want to do things by themselves, and makes people literally sit far away from other people. It also makes them less helpful, and this effect was shown on a variety of tasks and in several situations.
Research long ago revealed that money can't buy happiness (5). And now we're finding that what our grandmother always told us may also be true: You can't buy love or kindness. There is one way that money can give us happiness though, as other recent research has shown: if you give it away (6).