Maybe Scrooge Couldn't Help Being Hard-Hearted

THURSDAY Dec. 23, 2010 -- Hard-hearted Scrooge may not have been able to help being so mean.

That's because affluent people, despite their generally higher level of education, are less able to read the emotions of others, a new study suggests.

Researchers conducted three experiments designed to test how well participants could judge how others were feeling. In all, participants who considered themselves of a relatively lower social class more accurately gauged the emotional responses of others.

The differences were small, noted study author Michael Kraus, a postdoctoral fellow in health psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. But they're enough to suggest that the wealthy could use a few lessons in empathy.

"What we find is people who were of a lower class and people who have lower educational attainment are better able to read emotions than more affluent people," Kraus said.

In the first experiment, researchers asked 200 adults who worked in a range of jobs at a university to identify emotions in photographs of human faces.

Women judged emotions more accurately than men, as did people whose personalities were rated as "agreeable," according to a personality test. Those whose education stopped at high school were also better at guessing emotions than the college educated.

In the second experiment, researchers asked 106 university students to take part, two at a time, in a mock job interview. Interviewees were asked questions such as "What do you consider to be your greatest strengths and weaknesses?"

Participants were also asked to rate their family's social class on a ladder that had 10 rungs, with "those who are the best off, have the most education, most money and most respected jobs" at the top and "those who are the worst off, have the least education, least money, and the least respected job or no job" at the bottom.

Participants were then asked to rate their own and their partner's emotions during the interview, using terms such as amusement, anger, compassion, fear, happiness, hope, surprise and worry.

Students who rated their families as lower on the socioeconomic ladder were better able to gauge what their partners were feeling during the interview process, according to researchers.

In the final experiment, 81 students were randomly assigned to a rung on a ladder they were told represented their social class.

They were then shown photos portraying faces experiencing different emotions, including nervousness, hostility and playfulness.

Participants who were told they belonged to a lower social class judged the emotions more accurately than those told they were at the top of the social ladder.

"Being in a wealthy, affluent environment makes you less perceptive of others' emotions," Krauss said.

The study was published recently in Psychological Science.

Why might affluence breed insensitivity? Researchers theorize that lower class people generally have more at stake in reading people's emotions correctly and are therefore more attuned to other's feelings, whether it's reading the boss's mood or assessing threats in their environment.

"[Lower class people] need to be able to understand others' emotions better to see when potential threats are coming and when potential social opportunities are coming," Kraus said. "Upper class people have more resources and are more easily able to rely on themselves or hire people to do what needs to be done. When you are wealthy, your individual capacity is enhanced."

Sara Konrath, an assistant research professor at University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, said it makes sense that social class would impact social interactions -- and that those with relatively less power would pay more attention to how those with more power react as a means of self-preservation.

"People from lower power groups are wise to vigilantly observe the facial expressions of those from high power groups, because if they don't, they are in trouble," Konrath said. "So, if a study finds that working class people, or women, or people of color, are better able to read others emotions than rich white men, should we be surprised? Not necessarily, since rich white men happen to control a lot of resources in our society."

Yet this greater ability might not mean they are more empathetic, since empathy means not only being able to understand another's perspective, but also to care about it.

"Empathy and emotional recognition may overlap at times, but not all the time," Konrath said.

And, she noted, being rich doesn't necessarily mean you're a Scrooge in the making.

"There are plenty of rich people who are empathic and poor people with low empathy. Research psychologists examine group averages, but sometimes these averages can mask the variation that naturally exists within groups."

More information

For more on empathy, go to Stanford University.

Posted: December 2010


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