By Maia Szalavitz Wednesday
November 24, 2010
Looking for empathy and support? You're more likely to get it from a poor person than you are from a rich one, according to new research published in Psychological Science.
In a series of experiments, the new study found that lower-class people were better at reading emotions on others' faces — one measure of what researchers call empathic accuracy — than people in the upper class. "A lot of what we see is a baseline orientation for the lower class to be more empathetic and the upper class to be less [so]," says Michael Kraus, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral student at the University of California, San Francisco.
Why might that be? "Lower-class environments are much different from upper-class environments," explains Kraus. "Lower-class individuals have to respond chronically to a number of vulnerabilities and social threats. You really need to depend on others so they will tell you if a social threat or opportunity is coming and that makes you more perceptive of emotions."
Study co-author Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees that people in lower socioeconomic classes "live lives defined by threat. They are threatened by the environment, by institutions and by other people. One of most adaptive strategies in response to threat is to be very vigilant and carefully attend to others and try to promote cooperation to build strong alliances."
An earlier study by the same researchers found that those of lower socioeconomic status were also more helpful and generous, suggesting that it's not just empathic accuracy but empathy itself that may be enhanced by circumstance. "Coming from an environment where you're more vulnerable, you solve problems by turning to others," says Kraus. That increases empathy and strengthens social bonds.
For the new study, Kraus and his colleagues conducted three different experiments. The first involved 200 university employees, some with college degrees and some without; the university setting is one in which educational attainment is particularly linked to job status and can be used as a proxy for social class. When asked to look at photographs of faces and identify the emotions portrayed, those with only a high school degree did better than their college-educated counterparts.
This measure of empathic accuracy — "a person's ability to accurately read emotions that other people are feeling," says Kraus — is important because it is a key part of empathy itself: if you can't recognize what someone else is going through, it's hard to respond with kindness to their needs.
The second experiment involved college students who were asked to rate their own class status by placing themselves on a ladder representing various class ranks. In previous studies, subjective measures of class similar to this one have been found to accurately predict psychological and physical problems among lower status people.
In the experiment, two participants alternately watched and then took part in a hypothetical job interview with an experimenter. Once again, people who judged themselves to be lower class outperformed the those who identified as upper class in reading the emotions of their fellow participant.
In the third experiment, students were asked to compare their own class status with either someone at the top of the socioeconomic ladder — or someone at the bottom. People who compared themselves with a lower-class person, which made them think of themselves as having a higher status, were less accurate at reading emotional expressions. Conversely, those who were made to feel that they were in a lower class were better at reading emotions.
"I think [the study] is really well done and extremely compelling,” says Jamil Zaki, a postdoc at Harvard who studies empathy but was not associated with the research.
In addition to navigating lives that involve more social threats and vulnerabilities, the impact of power relations could also help explain why people lower on the class ladder might be better able to read emotional signals. When your job depends on knowing when the boss is angry, for instance, you're more likely to try to get better at reading him than he is to bother worrying about reading you.
"People induced to feel more power do all sorts of things that show that they are not paying as much attention to people and to the emotions of others," says Zaki.
The influence of power could also be the reason that some studies find a gender difference in empathetic accuracy favoring women: they frequently have less power than men. "There are likely to be many determinants" of the gender difference, says Keltner. "One is that having lower power status makes women more attuned. Another may be that they more systematically take on caregiving roles. A third may be basic biology. If women do indeed have higher levels of the [bonding chemical] oxytocin and we know that oxytocin promotes empathy, that may be involved."
In an economy that puts more and more people at risk of falling out of the middle or upper classes, the reduction in empathy seen in the upper classes is troubling.
"We are living in a period of historically high inequality. Health problems and psychological problems are correlated with inequality and we have rising inequality," says Keltner. "People in positions of power are not going to see [the inequality]. They're going to be blind to it and that has enormous implications for how we educate leaders, why they may not see [what's] obvious [to everyone else] and why they may not even understand the suffering of the people below them."
The good news for those stuck on the bottom, however, is that the people around them may be nicer.