• Health

Got Money? Then You Might Lack Compassion

4 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

Pity the poor plutocrat. Politicians want to tax them, Occupy Wall Streeters mock them, 99% of their fellow citizens are mad at them (even if they secretly want to be one of them). Now comes word from the University of California, Berkeley, that is not likely to send their approval ratings any higher: a new study has confirmed that the richer you are the less compassionate you are — and don’t gloat, you upper-middle classers, that includes you too.

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. As a rule, of course, college students have just one income level: poor — which is why they spend so much time writing home for money. Stellar thus chose her subjects based on the income of the people who respond to the requests and write the checks: the parents.

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.” Such self-reported data ought to be notoriously unreliable, since not many of us are likely to respond honestly if our answers make us look like a louse. But personality inventories are a long-standing staple of psychological testing — especially since the scoring is designed to correct for self-flattering grade inflation.

(MORE: How Being Socially Connected May Sap Your Empathy)

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.

The second study involved a smaller group of 64 subjects who watched two videos — an emotionally neutral instructional video on construction techniques, and a far more charged one that involved real families coping with a cancer-stricken child. Again, the subjects filled out emotional inventories and again they scored similarly on most mood metrics, including sadness. But the lower-income volunteers continued to come out higher on the compassion-and-empathy scale.

During this part of the study, Stellar also hooked her volunteers up to heartbeat monitors to determine their physical reactions to the two videos. There was, not surprisingly, no difference in heart rate when the instructional video was playing, but when the cancer stories began, the heartbeats of the lower-income volunteers slowed noticeably — a counterintuitive sign of caring. An immediate threat to ourselves or another causes heart rate to jump, the better to snap into action to respond to the danger. An emotional crisis can have the opposite physical effect on observers — helping them settle down to provide the quieter attention that simply listening and consoling requires.

“We have found that, during compassion, the heart rate lowers as if the body is calming itself to take care of another person,” Stellar says.

(MORE: Why Are College Students Reporting Record-High Levels of Stress?)

In the final part of the study, 106 of the participants were paired off and told to interview each other as if they were applying for a make-believe position as lab manager. So that the subjects would have real skin in the game, the ones who performed best in the interviews — as judged by Stellar and her team — would win a cash prize. All of the subjects reported feeling the same levels of stress or anxiety when they were being interviewed, but only the lower-income subjects were reliably able to detect the same feelings in their partner when the roles were reversed.

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. Perhaps that helps explain why so many wealthy college kids find their way into the Peace Corps and other volunteer groups. If suffering doesn’t find you, you go out and find it yourself — and come home more emotionally complete for the experience.

(MORE: The Rich Are Different: More Money, Less Empathy)

Kluger is a senior editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jeffreykluger. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com