To read other people's emotions, it helps to be poor, a study finds.
Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP
Money can't buy you happiness — or social skills, apparently. A new study finds those who are poor are better at empathy than the wealthy.
In multiple experiments, people of high socioeconomic status (or people who perceived themselves to be well-off) were worse at judging other people's emotions than those of low socioeconomic status, both when looking at photographs and interacting with real people. The reason may be that people with low income or low education have to be more responsive to others to get by, said study author Michael Kraus, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.
The empathy gap
Kraus' earlier research has found that wealthier people are ruder than poorer people in conversations with strangers. They've also found that the poor are more generous with their wealth than the rich. Their greater empathy could be the root of that charity, Kraus said.
"They're vigilant of other people's need, and they respond when they see it," he said.
The researchers conducted three experiments to tease out the empathy gap between rich and poor. In the first, they focused on the educational aspect of socioeconomic status (SES). The researchers recruited 200 university employees, ranging from office support personnel to educators to managers. They then collected data on the volunteers' educational attainment and asked them to identify facial expressions in a series of photographs.
This was one test that schooling couldn't help you pass: Those who completed only a high-school education scored an average of 7 percent higher than those with a college education. (The raw scores were converted to a scale in which the average participant in the study scored 100.89. When the numbers were broken down by education, those participants who completed only a high-school education scored an average of 106, compared with an average of 99 for college-educated participants.)
Next, the researchers had 106 students interact with one another in fake job interviews. They were asked to rate their own emotions and the emotions of their partners during the interview. Those who reported being higher on the socioeconomic ladder scored worse at accurately guessing their partners' emotions.
"It was across gender, across ethnic backgrounds," Kraus said. "You really see lower-class individuals showing this greater empathic accuracy in the study."
Which comes first?
But what if people who are financially well-off get that way because they're more self-focused? What if wealth doesn't affect empathy, but empathy affects wealth? To find out, the researchers recruited 81 different students. This time, they asked some of the students to visualize an extraordinarily wealthy individual — someone like Bill Gates, Kraus said.
Next, the students were told to place themselves on the socioeconomic ladder, imagining their wealthy individual at the top. Thinking of the Gates-like figure triggered the students to place themselves lower on the ladder than they otherwise would have. Other students were told to imagine someone completely destitute; those students placed themselves relatively higher on the ladder.
Finally, the 81 students looked at 36 close-up photographs of eyes and judged the emotions portrayed in the pictures. Sure enough, those manipulated into seeing themselves as lower-class scored 6 percent better than those manipulated into perceiving themselves as well-off.
That was a critical finding, Kraus said.
"If you manipulate, then you can talk about class leading to empathy," he said.
Kraus and his colleagues reported the results online Oct. 25 in the journal Psychological Science.
"This is fascinating," Vladas Griskevicius, a University of Minnesota psychologist who was not involved in the study, told Livescience.
"Most researchers would expect that people from higher-SES backgrounds would be better at reading other people," Griskevicius said. "But this research finds that people from lower-SES backgrounds are more attuned to what others are thinking and feeling."
Kraus and his colleagues are now interested in finding ways to influence people's empathy levels.
"Being empathic is one of the first steps to helping other people," Kraus said. "One of the first things we're really interested in is what can make wealthy people — affluent people the people with the largest capacity to give — what can make them empathic?"