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Why the Rich and Powerful Have Less Empathy

A psychologist reveals that the richer and more powerful a person is, the less empathy he or she is likely to have for people who are lower in status.


Psychologist Daniel Goleman has written a fascinating  piece for today’s New York Times about social status and empathy. It seems that the richer and more powerful a person is, the less empathy he or she is likely to have for people who are lower in status:

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. 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.


In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.

It’s not that rich people are natural-born sociopaths — although some of them certainly give that impression. Rather, says Goleman, while rich people can buy all the help they need, people of modest means “are more likely to value their social assets”:

The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

I see this in my own life all the time. I live in Hyde Park in Chicago, a neighborhood with a great deal of racial and economic diversity. It includes undergraduates wealthy enough to attend the University of Chicago, professors who live in homes built by Frank Lloyd Wright … and also a large population of working class African-Americans. I don’t own a car, and sometimes I carry heavy shopping bags home from the grocery store.

Every time I’ve schlepped along with heavy packages, someone has offered to help, a fact which never fails to move me. In every single instance, the people who offered to help have been African-American men and women. To my more affluent neighbors, in those moments, I became invisible — just as I, in turn, have no doubt failed to “see” other people in distress, as I make the neighborhood rounds. Because they’ve been in my shoes in that particular situation — carrying heavy packages, with no one to help — my African-American neighbors have empathy for me. But because they haven’t had that experience, my white neighbors don’t.

Goleman says that growing inequality and the social distance it creates may be responsible for a “empathy gap” that has led to the Republican party’s Scrooge-like politics: cutting food stamps, denying health care, etc. I don’t doubt there’s something to that, but political ideology is far more complicated than that. I have relatives whose politics are awful but whose personal behavior could hardly be more generous and empathetic. And I’ve also known people with great politics who behave like cold-hearted bastards, particularly towards their social inferiors.

But I do agree that in societies where there is more equality and less social distance, there does tend to be more empathy. That was one of the points I was making in  this post. As I wrote, “[d]eeply unequal societies like ours are … breeding grounds for a host of simmering resentments, petty tyrannies and everyday sadism.” That’s because, on the one hand, you have so many heartless power plays and unthinking acts of cruelty on the part of the powerful. And on the other hand, the experience of constantly being dehumanized and robbed of one’s dignity doesn’t exactly improve one’s character. What it’s likely to do, instead, is to cause you, in turn, to dehumanize others. It is not an edifying spectacle. But it is inevitable when you create an economic system that allows people to use human beings like objects.

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