Rich people and compassion

Rich people are different from the rest of us– they are less compassionate.  A former student sent me this link about a recent study comparing the personality traits of persons by income categories:

In a study just published in the straightforwardly named journal Emotion, psychologist Jennifer Stellar sought to determine the empathic capacities of a sample group of 300 college students, who had been hand-selected for maximum economic diversity…

In the first of three experiments, she had 148 of her subjects fill out a detailed questionnaire reporting how often and how intensely they experience emotions such as joy, love, compassion and awe. She also had them agree or disagree with statements like “I often notice people who need help.” …

When the numbers on these inventories were crunched, Stellar and her colleagues found no meaningful personality differences among the students that could be attributable to income except one: across the board, the lower the subjects’ family income, the higher their score on compassion.

This was actually a pretty robust finding, as there were additional studies that included experiments that actually measured biological responses to emotional stimuli.  And before you feel too good about yourself, the upper middle class were lacking in compassion.  I’m not entirely satisfied with the conclusion:

So does this mean the rich really are the unfeeling boors the lower half say they are? Well yes — and no. A low score on the compassion scale doesn’t mean a lack of capacity for the feeling, Stellar argues. It may just mean a lack of experience observing — and tending to — the hardship others.

Not that I have a better explanation myself, but I’m thinking there’s got to be more to this.  Would love to see a study that compares people who used to be poor, but now are rich, as that would definitely address the hypothesis in the above paragraph.

Another question I have, is just how closely does the personality characteristic of compassion translate into political beliefs.  Presumably, the less compassionate would be less supportive of welfare, social programs, etc.  That could certainly explain a lot.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Rich people and compassion

  1. Mike Barr says:

    I haven’t read the article, so maybe these comments are moot…these are relative differences in empathy, but what is the meaning and impact of the differences in absolute levels of empathy? If this were happiness, and one group averaged ‘Extremely Very Happy!” and another group averaged “Happy”, and the difference was statistically significant, would it really matter in practical terms? A difference that makes no difference is no difference.

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