Empathy and Wealth

I heard a fascinating programme on BBC World Service the other day, an interview by Robert Peston with Dacher Keltner of University of California. It dealt with the effect that wealth has on people’s empathy levels, and doesn’t make for comfortable listening although it exactly mirrors my own suspicions.

Here are my pretty rough notes of the programme.

Each jump up social ladder means you live a longer life and have more robust health. If you are well off but see other people who are better off it actually affects your health adversely.

How does class influence social behaviour?
1. Wealthy share less % than poor
2. Most people would share 40% with a stranger; rich less than that

A test was set up in a pedestrian zone in a town. The pedestrian has right of way—NO poor people drove through it but over 40% of rich people just ploughed right through, very dangerous.

In the lab, had bowl of sweets at exit—rich people stole from it, even though explicitly marked as for disadvantaged kids.

Big study looked at shoplifting; rich are much more likely to do it than poor.

Why? With power and wealth comes moral myopia—think law does not apply to you. Policeman wrote to professor and said wealthy people usually argued law did not apply to them and that police should be going after ‘real’ offenders

When we feel dependent and resources are scarce, we form strong ties and bonds with others; show empathy with others; if you show poor people pictures of people showing emotions they are much better at identifying those emotions than rich people are.

Dramatic finding: image of starving child triggers vagus nerve which slows heart, makes you look and boosts empathy—poorer people had strong reaction, rich none at all.

Compassion deficit.

Does this explain how people got rich: were they just ruthless from start or did wealth and status disconnect them from empathy?

Dozens of studies of people in organisations like schools, business, military units etc show that compassion and empathy allow you to rise in the ranks but once you’re at the top you tend to stop feeling those traits. In short, being rich means you tend to mean you lose compassion even if you initially had it.

This would tend to explain the old adage about people becoming more right-wing as they age: they have acquired more wealth and belongings and also, it seems, lost their compassion along the way.

Entirely in line with that, I seem to be going the other way.

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