Most of us, at one point or another, have wished that we were rich.
Maybe we wished we didn’t have to worry about money … or that we could buy whatever we liked … or that we could be free to pursue our passions … or (fill in your answer here).
And, yes, the rich (or, at least, the very rich) have money and can do all those things.
But at LearnVest we know money doesn’t buy everything. And now, new research proves it.
Case in point: empathy.
It turns out that the wealthier you are, the less adept you are at reading people’s emotions.
Three different experiments showed that people with more education, money and social status were less skilled at detecting emotions in pictures of faces and in face-to-face interactions during simulated job interviews.
“It was across gender, across ethnic backgrounds,” one of the researchers, Michael Kraus, at the University of California, San Francisco, told Live Science. “You really see lower-class individuals showing this greater empathic accuracy in the study … They’re vigilant of other people’s need, and they respond when they see it.”
So, we’re all here at LearnVest to gain control of our finances. Does this mean the cost of our wealth will be poor social lives?
How They Measured Empathy
Of all the things that scientists could measure, social skill seems like one of the more nebulous ones. But three separate experiments showed the same effect.
The three researchers—Kraus, plus Stéphane Côté, at the University of Toronto, and Dacher Keltner, at the University of California, Berkeley—used educational attainment and self-reported identification of family socioeconomic status to determine the social class of the study subjects.
- The first experiment asked 200 participants, who were university employees ranging from administrative support to managers, to look at photos of faces and identify the emotions expressed in them. The upper-class subjects performed less well.
- The second study asked 106 students to take part in fake job interviews in which they rated their own emotions as well as those of their partner. Again, the students of a higher socioeconomic status were worse at reading their partner’s expressions.
- The third study showed an unusual effect: The researchers asked half of the 81 students to think about someone extraordinarily wealthy, such as Bill Gates. The other half of the students were asked to think about someone destitute. The students then were asked to judge the emotions portrayed in photographs of eyes. It turns out that subjects who just thought about a wealthy individual—which mentally tricked them into placing themselves lower on the socioeconomic ladder—performed 6% better than those who had visualized a poor person. So even just thinking of yourself as having lower status makes you more empathetic.
These findings correlate with earlier research showing that the poor give almost 30% more of their income than the middle-class and wealthy, and that wealthier people are ruder in conversation than poorer people and that they are even more unethical. (Hear why one woman chooses to give 10% of her salary to charity every year.)
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Why the Rich Are So Poor at Reading Faces
So, there’s no silver bullet answer here. But there is a good theory.
What it may boil down to is this: When people in the lower classes need help, they can’t just hire it. They need to rely on favors from neighbors, relatives and friends in order to get a ride to work or to find childcare for the day. So, the authors suggest, they are more attuned to the feelings of others, and develop social skills that help grease the wheels.
The wealthy, on the other hand, don’t develop those skills. “Upper-class people, in spite of all of their advantages, suffer empathy deficits,” Dr. Keltner told The New York Times.
How You Can Build Empathy and Wealth
This is the thing, though. Wealth and empathy aren’t mutually exclusive, and, being empathic can actually earn you more.
In fact, studies show that the more you can relate to people, the likelier you are to get ahead. A report by the Center for Creative Leadership stated that managers who demonstrate more empathy toward their direct reports are rated more highly in job performance by their bosses.
You can actively work on improving your empathy skills by
- purposely giving time and attention to others
- being an “active listener” who paraphrases what you hear from others
- putting yourself into other people’s shoes to understand their point of view
So, don’t fear that pumping up your savings account or squirreling away money in your retirement account is going to mean you start missing social cues. Or that you have to be oblivious to others to get ahead.
There is always the option to be wealthy and warm.
More From LearnVest
If just reading this is making you feel more empathy, we’ve got an idea for you: Give to women.
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Oh dear. It turns out the wealthy are not only less empathetic—they are also more unethical.