Psychologists at New York University developed a series of experiments that measured how interested the participants were in the lives of other people. Like other studies before it, the researchers came to the stark conclusion that those better off financially unconsciously paid very little attention or downright ignored passersby on the street. The implications need to be considered, especially in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider, while the middle class is tightened like in a vice.
You can’t buy empathy
In the first experiment, 61 participants were asked to walk around Brooklyn, New York, while wearing Google Glass — normal-looking spectacles that can also record everything coming into their field of vision. They were told that they were merely testing the technology. Later, when their walking tours were over, each participant had to fill out a survey which determined which social class they belonged to. After logging each participant’s time spent watching other people, the team found wealthy individuals spent less time gazing at other people on the street.
Another follow-up study was designed to gauge the same thing, only using eye-tracking while participants watched photos from Google Street view. Again, those who self-reported they were wealthy spent less time looking at people.
Was this an unconscious response or did the participants consciously avoid looking at people? To get to the bottom of things, the researchers recruited 400 people for an online survey. Alternating pairs of pictures were shown which contained various items, like fruit, appliances, or human faces. A picture flashed for a moment, then was replaced by another which was nearly identical, and participants had to hit the ‘space bar’ when they felt confident they could spot the differences. Those participants who self-identified as less wealthy were a lot faster at noticing changes in faces in the photos, as reported in the journal Psychological Science.
“Across field, lab, and online studies, our research documents that other humans are more likely to capture the attention of lower-class individuals than the attention of higher-class individuals,” says psychological scientist Pia Dietze of New York University. “Like other cultural groups, social class affects information processing in a pervasive and spontaneous manner.”
Psychologists have a couple of ideas to explain this odd, but maybe not surprising, behavior. Wealthy people have the cash to pay other people to take care of their things, which makes them less dependent on others — socially speaking. As such, wealthy people are less likely to see other people as rewarding or threatening, hence they pay little attention — not even to those who belong to the same social class. One 2009 study found students of higher socioeconomic status paid less attention to a stranger with whom they were paired at a discussion table, even when that person was as wealthy as they were.
Now, it’s easy to point the finger and call out spoiled brats but as the so-called “one percent” gap gets wider, this seemingly lack of empathy won’t help one bit in improving the situation.
“Our work contributes to a growing knowledge base around the influence of social class background on psychological functioning,” says Dietze. “The more we know about the effect of social class differences, the better we can address widespread societal issues — this research is just one piece of the puzzle.”