The upper class, with their money, Ivy League colleges and privilege, seemingly has everything. But perhaps they are lacking in a key way that their less educated, poorer counterparts aren’t. A collection of research psychologists recently published a research report claiming that upper class, more educated people are less attuned to the emotions of others. In other words, they have more trouble reading the non-verbal cues of strangers.
The initial prediction of the research scientists was that a lower class person experiences harsher external forces of life that require more support from others around them. On the other hand, an upper class upbringing meant that they did not have to depend on others and allowed these individuals to be self-focused.
To conduct the experiments the researchers recruited a group of employees from a single organization from both upper class and lower class backgrounds. Their education level was used as an arbiter of class level. Initially all the participants were given a series of tests to measure empathy and, on average, lower class participants scored higher than their upper class peers.
One experiment involved a mock job interview with two participants; when the participants were asked to rate their emotions and the emotions of a stranger, those in upper class did not perform as well as those in the lower class. In another experiment, the researchers asked the participants to imagine themselves in the role of someone in the upper class or the lower class and then identify subtle emotions of people’s eyes from a series of photos. When prompted to imagine themselves as lower class, the upper class participants were better able to recognize subtle emotional changes.
What this seems to suggest is the lack of resources of poor people means they must learn to understand the people and forces outside their control. This study follows and corroborates previous studies that indicated lower class individuals rely more on non-verbal communication.
Social interactions involve how we perceive and interpret social situations. The study indicates that empathy is a cultural trait which, depending on your socio-economic class, can become over- or underdeveloped. Does hardship truly develop character in ways we are only beginning to understand? Or does material wealth allow people to act independent of the thoughts, attitudes and emotions of others, thereby avoiding their judgment? Perhaps Nick was right in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” when he said, “The rich are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them.”