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So on the bright side, the poor make for better company anyway
August 10, 2011 11:26 AM   Subscribe

New research shows the Rich truly are different from you and me in one key respect: they feel less empathy (overview of the research here; unfortunately, a full report of the findings is only available behind various pay-walls). Previously, the same team of researchers found that members of the economic upper-class have a harder time recognizing others' emotions.
posted by saulgoodman (118 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
> the same team of researchers found that members of the economic upper-class have a harder time recognizing others' emotions.

Smithers: Well, I hate to break it to you, Larry, but if Mr. Burns ever wants to see a stranger, he will observe him through a powerful telescope.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:30 AM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


the same team of researchers found that members of the economic upper-class have a harder time recognizing others' emotions.

It's not needed. They don't need to gauge how people feel, they can buy compliance.
posted by Malice at 11:31 AM on August 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


Sometimes I look around at my pool, my beautiful new car, my landscaped lawn, and I wonder to myself - what are the poor people doing today?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:32 AM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Cause or effect of their wealth?
posted by shivohum at 11:33 AM on August 10, 2011 [19 favorites]


Who cares?

/stinkin' rich
posted by Sys Rq at 11:33 AM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


We could put some rich people in a "cat vice" and measure their neurons. That will tell us something. Plus, we can charge to let them out....
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:34 AM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wonder if the Morlocks ever felt bad at dinner time.
posted by griphus at 11:34 AM on August 10, 2011


The Rich? I think you mean the Job Creators.
posted by phelixshu at 11:34 AM on August 10, 2011 [15 favorites]


My butler took the test for me, and he's a sociopath.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 11:34 AM on August 10, 2011 [8 favorites]


But then, as my grandmother used to say: If you have your health at least you have something.
posted by Postroad at 11:35 AM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


But if you have money and no health you can just buy some poor person's liver.
posted by elizardbits at 11:36 AM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Rich? I think you mean the Job Creators.

The new Job Creators line just slays me. Because, like, those billions of dollars CEOs get? They don't come from creating jobs.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:37 AM on August 10, 2011 [15 favorites]


They're Job Creators in the sense that they've got a job for ya right 'ere.
posted by griphus at 11:39 AM on August 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


The rich don't have it so easy. I know because I read it in The Simplified Great Gatsby.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:41 AM on August 10, 2011 [8 favorites]


Explains a lot of conservative groupthink - 'If we eliminate all empathy in ourselves, maybe WE'LL become rich too!'
posted by FatherDagon at 11:41 AM on August 10, 2011 [24 favorites]


And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself...

Absolutely nothing because you just don't care about anyone but yourself.
posted by tommasz at 11:42 AM on August 10, 2011 [13 favorites]


Oh, wait, I think I might be pronouncing it wrong. Are they job creators, or Job creators?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:42 AM on August 10, 2011 [43 favorites]


"It's not personal, it's business."
posted by Ardiril at 11:43 AM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Cause or effect of their wealth?

Either way, fuck 'em.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 11:44 AM on August 10, 2011


"fuck you, got mine"
posted by radiosilents at 11:45 AM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


unfortunately, a full report of the findings is only available behind various pay-walls

The irony of this is palpable.
posted by schmod at 11:46 AM on August 10, 2011 [33 favorites]


Good thing we have the empathy tax deduction.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:48 AM on August 10, 2011


Sys Rq: "Oh, wait, I think I might be pronouncing it wrong. Are they job creators, or Job creators?"

G.O.B. creators?
posted by schmod at 11:49 AM on August 10, 2011


(Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates: "Sometimes I look around at my pool, my beautiful new car, my landscaped lawn, and I wonder to myself - what are the poor people doing today?"

Cleaning your pool, detailing your car, and mowing your lawn.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 11:49 AM on August 10, 2011 [9 favorites]


SCIENTISTS PROVE THE RICH ARE FROM OUTER SPACE.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:50 AM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't afford to pay to find out how rich people are better than me.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:51 AM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Observe: My surprised face. That is all.
posted by Splunge at 11:54 AM on August 10, 2011


New research shows the Rich truly are different from you and me in one key respect: they feel less empathy (overview of the research here; unfortunately, a full report of the findings is only available behind various pay-walls)

Some day I will have the money to read these articles, and then fuck all y'all.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:54 AM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


Cause or effect of their wealth?

Effect, almost certainly. Insulation is bound to reduce empathy. Plus, I think rich people often are fearful that their wealth will be stripped away by the demands of the many.
posted by bearwife at 11:54 AM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Effect, almost certainly.

Ah, but for those who didn't inherit the money how did they get to that position? Being driven like that generally involves a fair amount of selfishness, beneficial or otherwise.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 11:58 AM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work

And keep in mind that rich people are also very overrepresented in politics. And you wonder why we don't address problems like homelessness on a systemic level. Easy to figure out once you know the real problem.
posted by DU at 11:59 AM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree completely and see this daily in myself.

I admit that I have no real empathy for those less fortunate. I'll make all the right noises and maybe "adopt" a child in a third world nation by sending a few dollars every once and awhile, but overall I'm content. I don't do enough to find out where the goods I buy are coming from and whether the labour or raw materials are obtained through unethical means.

I dislike that my country is still participating in the war in Afghanistan, but what have I personally done about it besides complain every once and awhile? Nothing.

I live pretty comfortably. I eat out often. I just got a new Smartphone. My wife and I own a house and an Echo we bought used together. Do I think we deserve these things? Admittedly, yes. Do I consider it an accident of birth that put me in these circumstances? When asked this question, I'll say yes, but I doubt I'll give it another thought.
posted by ODiV at 12:03 PM on August 10, 2011 [21 favorites]


Cause or effect of their wealth?

Effect, almost certainly. Insulation is bound to reduce empathy.


The rich are insulated from the poor, certainly. So they'd have a hard time identifying with poor people. But that's not what this study measured. The rich have a hard time identifying emotions. Under your theory, you'll have to account for why the rich are particularly insulated from emotions.

Under the other theory, there's nothing additional to explain. The rich are rich because they have less empathy and exploit others without (or with less) guilt.
posted by DU at 12:03 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can only conclude from the empathy shown in this thread that......we must all be rich.
posted by storybored at 12:05 PM on August 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


I keep meaning to take this and turn it into an FPP, but never seem to have the time. Might as well leave it here now:

Born on Third Base: The Sources of Wealth of the 1997 Forbes 400 is a research project put together in the late '90's by "United for a Fair Economy." UFE used to publish a book with a curriculum for economics and history teachers based on the project's findings. Today, they offer free economics education courses for download on their website.

The project's preface:
Preface
From Rich to Richer
S.M. Miller

Forbes Magazine likes to herald its reports on the wealthiest Americans as demonstrating the realization of the American dream: that one can go from rags to riches. For Forbes, the Horatio Alger story is the true story of America.

But careful identification of how Forbes' centi-millionaires and billionaires attained their wealth tells a different account of the plebeian origins of the richest Americans. Half of those on the Forbes 400 list started their economic careers by inheriting businesses or substantial wealth. Of these, most inherited sufficient wealth to put them immediately into Forbes' heaven. Only three out of ten on the Forbes list can be regarded as self-starters whose parents did not have great wealth or own a business with more than a few employees.

The data, then, do not support the assumption that the United States is a true meritocracy where the most able rise to their rightful positions. Nor do they defend the contention that the United States is structured so that authentic equality of opportunity prevails. Inheritances undermine the achievement-reward equation.

In 1995, it took only $340 million to break into to the Forbes 400. In 1996, the hurdle was raised to $400 million. By 1997, it was $475 million. The net worth of the wealthiest of the wealthy is increasing much faster than that of the rest of us.

Underlying Forbes' and others call for dramatically lowering taxes on the wealthy and decreasing or eliminating taxation of capital gains is the belief that we need wealthy people so that they can save, become entrepreneurs and provide jobs for the rest of us who are not as wise, energetic or risk-taking as they are. What proportion of the Forbes 400 established successful companies? Perhaps a quarter. We lack data on employment and other benefits of these enterprises.

Rather than concocting fables about our supposed "opportunity society," the editors of Forbes really ought to be examining the starting-gate advantages that the bulk of the Forbes 400 enjoyed. And while they're at it, perhaps they could delve into a few other questions: Exactly how does the great wealth of a very few benefit ordinary people? Do great concentrations of wealth block out opportunities for others to innovate? Do the consumption patterns of the wealthy distort the values and ambitions of many others? Are materialism and commercialism promoted by the display of enormous wealth? Is the power of big money corrupting political democracy?

posted by zarq at 12:06 PM on August 10, 2011 [18 favorites]


There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone; in fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape, but even after admitting this there is no catharsis, my punishment continues to elude me and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself; no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:08 PM on August 10, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yes, but how do they taste?
posted by jetsetsc at 12:11 PM on August 10, 2011 [8 favorites]


I wonder what their definition of "the rich" is. I remember a study a year or so back that claimed that the US tax code was more progressive than Sweden's (I think - some scandanavian country) that various wingnuts interpreted as "the US tax code punished the rich". Turned out that the study was looking at the relative tax burden of the top 25%, which doesn't seem like a good equivalent of "rich".

It seems unlikely that these researchers have access to members of the Fortune 400 (which is more-or-less my definition of "rich"). I suspect its more like the study I mentioned - by "rich" they mean people with better jobs. Fits with my experience - most of the people at or above "director" are unmitigated assholes.

(This is why I like the marxist terms - proletariat and bourgeoisie. They've got nice, well-defined meanings and distinct places in society. People who work for a living, or people who make their money by owning stuff. People who pay payroll+income taxes, vs people who pay capital gains+inheritance taxes.)
posted by bonecrusher at 12:11 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've often thought empathy / lack of empathy was a difference between democrats and republicans, so this is... interesting.
posted by LordSludge at 12:12 PM on August 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, and a person needs to have a net worth of $1B to make the Forbes 400 list now.
posted by zarq at 12:12 PM on August 10, 2011


The world runs on money, and every encounter is an opportunity to have it seduced out of you -- especially if you have a lot it. I think it's only natural that people with a lot of money trend towards distancing themselves from the assumed solicitations of the less wealthy.

The same way living in the city hardens you from ignoring the 15th homeless person you pass on your way to work. The same way a rock star can eschew the advances of a cute 7 in lieu of a hot 9.

We have limited time -- limited lives. We all work within the construct of our experiences and expectations.

We live in a society that pedastals money above all else. Is it really a surprise that those at the top would hoard their cash and evaluate others based on what runs the system that has worked in their favor and has everyone pining for a sliver?

We all have a sense of entitlement. Our ability to afford healthcare is another culture's ability to get a daily meal. Do we fix our problems first, or someone else's?
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 12:12 PM on August 10, 2011 [8 favorites]


Cleaning your pool, detailing your car, and mowing your lawn.

Ugh. Depressing!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 12:14 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess this doesn't upset me, as I have very little empathy for the rich.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:16 PM on August 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


This is a grab bag of experiments that (for all we know) measure twelve different skills or traits. Science PR being what it is, they are presented as telling a single story about a single underlying trait -- "empathy."

And everyone here laps it up because they want to dump on all the (other, bad) people making more than $90K a year.

Well, it's a good year for this FPP anyway.

Seriously, there have been hundreds of studies of ultimatum games in recent years. There is no consensus that "giving more under experimental conditions = empathy." In many experiments the opposite is almost certainly true. For example, ultimatum game participants from "primitive" societies will bargain hard with tribal ingroup members, but accept very bad deals with tribal outgroup members, even though they presumably empathize more with tribal ingroup members.

Or this:
In video recordings of conversations, rich people are more likely to appear distracted, checking cell phones, doodling, avoiding eye contact, while low-income people make eye contact and nod their heads more frequently signaling engagement.
Alternate reading: high-status subjects are more likely to behave in a high-status (distracted) manner. Low-status subjects are more likely to behave in a low-status (obedient) manner.
posted by grobstein at 12:16 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wonder how the theory holds up cross-culturally? Are people in poor countries more empathetic, on average, than people in rich ones?
posted by Net Prophet at 12:16 PM on August 10, 2011


Do we fix our problems first, or someone else's?

Ah, but my privilege (economic or otherwise) is my problem, in addition to being a part of the problems of many others. It leaves us largely alienated from one another.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 12:16 PM on August 10, 2011


Hmm. It was a truism in charity canvassing that when we hit the wealthy neighbourhoods we were in for a rough ride. Donations not perfectly inversely proportional to apparent wealth, of course, but poor people dug comparatively deep. Sometimes surprisingly so.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 12:18 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Low-status subjects are more likely to behave in a low-status (obedient) manner.

Speak for yourself. Some of us bottom-order primates aren't particularly obedient at all.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:19 PM on August 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


Interesting, considering the hardest lesson for me to learn when portraying royalty on stage: the king doesn't have to look at who he's talking to if he doesn't want to.
posted by droob at 12:20 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Regarding the OP: The norms of our economic lives in the developed world put people with what in other contexts are seen as negative traits in charge of others. There is no doubt in my mind that the observed correlation can be explained mostly by lack of empathy causing wealth.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 12:21 PM on August 10, 2011


Not surprising, but lest we get too holier-than-thou about the American super-rich, we should remind ourselves that relative to most of our fellow human beings we are very rich, and have been able to adopt (afford) a similar lack of empathy relative to the rest of the world, as illustrated by recent research indicating that empathy - as a personal quality - is declining among American youth. Mirror, mirror, on the wall...
posted by Vibrissae at 12:21 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


Though I'm sure this builds on itself: you dominate those around you to become more successful, and this engenders further alienation, which makes the next rung up the ladder easier to climb.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 12:22 PM on August 10, 2011


Regarding the OP: The norms of our economic lives in the developed world put people with what in other contexts are seen as negative traits in charge of others. There is no doubt in my mind that the observed correlation can be explained mostly by lack of empathy causing wealth.

It's interesting. Isn't there a hypothesis that people with analytical cognitive styles are less empathetic?
posted by grobstein at 12:22 PM on August 10, 2011


And everyone here laps it up because they want to dump on all the (other, bad) people making more than $90K a year.

I bet that is how they defined "rich" (well, it's a couple of psych professors, so I'm guessing its actually "college-aged children of parents with incomes over 90k"). Which is interesting, but a far cry from the Fortune 400. I doubt that even puts you in the top 5% these days.
posted by bonecrusher at 12:29 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


the king doesn't have to look at who he's talking to if he doesn't want to.

This is also true of Minnesotans.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:30 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


SCIENTISTS PROVE THE RICH ARE FROM OUTER SPACE.

I've come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum. . .
 
posted by Herodios at 12:30 PM on August 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


The rich are insulated from the poor, certainly. So they'd have a hard time identifying with poor people. But that's not what this study measured. The rich have a hard time identifying emotions. Under your theory, you'll have to account for why the rich are particularly insulated from emotions.

I don't think this is hard to figure out. Insulation means very little familiarity, ergo difficulty identifying emotions.

This is human, not something that distinguishes rich people, however they got that way, from people who aren't rich. For example, I was raised in a lower class neighborhood and when I got to my elite ivy league college, I tumbled a lot faster to signs of worry and distress from working people on campus. I was used to paying attention to working class people. A lot of my classmates (though perfectly nice people) weren't.

The conscience is like a muscle, I think, and needs exercise/use, or there is atrophy.
posted by bearwife at 12:30 PM on August 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


Explains a lot of conservative groupthink - 'If we eliminate all empathy in ourselves, maybe WE'LL become rich too!'

And yet (NY Times warning):
Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates...

Conservatives also appear to be more generous than liberals in nonfinancial ways. People in red states are considerably more likely to volunteer for good causes, and conservatives give blood more often. If liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives, Mr. Brooks said, the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent.
posted by BobbyVan at 12:33 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Possibly related (in a rational actor =~ /sociopath/ sense): Secrets of the Economist's Trade: First, Purchase a Piggy Bank (Wall Street Journal). About as scientific as economics itself, but hey, it's all in good fun...
posted by titus-g at 12:35 PM on August 10, 2011


If liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives, Mr. Brooks said, the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent.

Would the very rich deign to have the blood of the poor run through their veins, though?
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:36 PM on August 10, 2011


storybored: I can only conclude from the empathy shown in this thread that......we must all be rich
Well... yes...
posted by hincandenza at 12:37 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


NYT: "Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates..."

That doesn't strike me as contradictory at all. I think government can do a better job of redistributing wealth than small cheritable organizations can.
posted by Net Prophet at 12:42 PM on August 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


I've often thought empathy / lack of empathy was a difference between democrats and republicans

when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates


I identify as liberal, even leftist. I recognize a lack of empathy in myself, but I realize this is no way to run a country.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:49 PM on August 10, 2011


This reinforces a line I heard about Hollywood producers being "that guy" in high school that never got the joke and still haven't. It would be interesting to see what other personality traits correlate with wealth.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:49 PM on August 10, 2011


It's also multi-factorial, at the very least

rich/{liberal,centrist,conservative}
middle/{liberal,centrist,conservative}
poor/{liberal,centrist,conservative}

Being poor quite possibly beats being conservative in terms of giving (blood or otherwise).

What is the actual cross tab breakdown of wealth and politics?
posted by titus-g at 12:51 PM on August 10, 2011


That doesn't strike me as contradictory at all. I think government can do a better job of redistributing wealth than small cheritable organizations can.

Oh, so it's not being cheap, but principled. Okay, it's good that we straightened that out.
posted by FJT at 1:00 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


jetsetsc: Yes, but how do they taste?

You know of Kobe beef, right? The rich are the Kobe beef of people: treated well, and not subjected to the same conditions that make other people tough to chew.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:05 PM on August 10, 2011


It's both, I think. Consider environmental protections and concerns, FJT. I care about the environment, but I also live somewhere where all our goods/food is trucked and flown in and I spend an average of about $500 on heating oil per month. I support initiatives to try to make things more environmentally friendly, but am pretty reluctant to go for the "greener" option if it's significantly more expensive.
posted by ODiV at 1:06 PM on August 10, 2011


I identify as liberal, even leftist. I recognize a lack of empathy in myself. . .

That pose is 'out', too, Sunny Jim. The new thing is to care passionately and be right-wing.

Besides, if you don't cooperate, you won't get to meet Susan.
 
posted by Herodios at 1:06 PM on August 10, 2011


Oh, so it's not being cheap, but principled. Okay, it's good that we straightened that out.

Wait a second, FJT--you and others on this particular derail train are ignoring something. Often, when Republicans (especially wealthy ones) donate money to ostensible public interest causes, they're doing so to exploit tax advantages, or to exert more direct political influence over organizations that are involved in some key area of policy making in which they have a financial stake or other business interest. Without a much deeper analysis of the facts, I don't think it's fair to play the game of "who's the real Scrooge?" here. And besides, the FPP isn't about political orientations, but about social class. So this sideline seems a little off topic, anyway.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:10 PM on August 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's also multi-factorial, at the very least

rich/{liberal,centrist,conservative}
middle/{liberal,centrist,conservative}
poor/{liberal,centrist,conservative}



Lawful {Good/Neutral/Evil}
Unaligned {Good/Neutral/Evil}
Chaotic {Good/Neutral/Evil}
posted by goethean at 1:12 PM on August 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


filthy light thief: You know of Kobe beef, right? The rich are the Kobe beef of people: treated well, and not subjected to the same conditions that make other people tough to chew
See, I like to think of the rich as the Kobe Bryant of people; they'll screw you whether you like it or not, and complain all you want but they'll suffer no real consequences.
posted by hincandenza at 1:12 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fewer rape jokes, please.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:18 PM on August 10, 2011


grobstein: And everyone here laps it up because they want to dump on all the (other, bad) people making more than $90K a year.

"Without cruelty there is no festival." Even the dumped-upon who make over $90k a year would have a hard time arguing with that.

BobbyVan: And yet (NY Times warning):

And yet -- David Brooks anecdata can prove anything!
posted by blucevalo at 1:20 PM on August 10, 2011


I bet that is how they defined "rich" (well, it's a couple of psych professors, so I'm guessing its actually "college-aged children of parents with incomes over 90k"). Which is interesting, but a far cry from the Fortune 400. I doubt that even puts you in the top 5% these days.

FYI, to get into the top 5%, your household needs to make $180,000 in 2009 dollars. The cutoff for the top 20% is about $100k (source)
posted by desjardins at 1:21 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Often, when Republicans (especially wealthy ones) donate money to ostensible public interest causes, they're doing so to exploit tax advantages, or to exert more direct political influence over organizations that are involved in some key area of policy making in which they have a financial stake or other business interest.

I don't see how you could possibly back up this statement.

And yet -- David Brooks anecdata can prove anything!

It was Nicholas Kristof who wrote that, not David Brooks.
posted by BobbyVan at 1:21 PM on August 10, 2011


The author Brian Alexander appears to take the research and attach a political agenda to it. From what I can tell the researchers were merely presenting their findings and were not attaching an agenda to it. I am hesitant when journalists "interpret" research.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 1:23 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Conflating wealth/income and class is an annoying trait of American culture.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:27 PM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Conflating wealth/income and class is an annoying trait of American culture.

How would you suggest class be designated?
posted by Sys Rq at 1:32 PM on August 10, 2011


I work for a lot of very rich people, providing services. The majority of our clients are very wealthy, sometimes running into "obscenely wealthy". I deal with these people one-on-one all the time, and have for many years. It's difficult for me to parse my feelings on this, because I can't tell how objective I am.
It's very important to me to not be prejudicial against any group of people, to generalize too much, to make assumptions. You can deal regularly with any demographic subculture and have some idea of what to expect, but of course you have to remember always that everyone is a unique individual product (or victim) of their past; their experiences, their upbringing, their genetics. So like some people have basically questioned above, how much of this is a chicken/egg scenario? How many of these people are rich by being avaricious and ruthless, how many worked their asses off and created their wealth "honestly", how many inhereted it? Most of the rich people I work for are southern, from larger cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Columbia, Nashville, or from Florida or other Eastern seaboard cities. 99% are white and grew up in privileged circumstances.
Anyway, like I was saying, it's important to me to not be prejudicial in life, but I think if there's any group I might have a prejudice against, it's the rich. Just because less than 5% of the rich people I meet seem to be kind and pleasant people, and the rest are self-absorbed, demanding, petty, and ironically, very cheap (hey, they didn't get rich by throwing money away!). I can't tell how much of it is that having power and money and being able to get whatever you want when you want it makes you come to expect it, to feel entitled to it, so much that you get pissed when you don't get what you want, or how much is that the people who force what they want on others usually get what they want because humans are such utter suckers for hierarchies, no matter how imaginary they are. But however it happens, the vast majority of the hundreds I've dealt with are just plain assholes. I knocked on this one guys door this morning just to let him know we'd be there the next day, to see if there was anything else specifically he was wanting. I was unfailingly polite and tried to be concise, and he was just waiting for me to shut the fuck up so he could go back to whatever it was that required him to be hanging around in his house on a Wednesday in his shorts and loafers. "Just make sure and get the __________." and shuts the door in my face. I drive through these gated communities and see people in ridiculous pastel outfits on the manicured fairways of the golf courses and imagine the conversations they're having about their third home in Florida or their stock options. I see them treat workers like shit all of the time, not really seeming to regard them as human. They imagine ridiculous things that they "need" and demand them; even if I am the expert they are hiring to do something for them, they ignore my expertise because they have some harebrained idea that they want, they don't really give a shit what's involved in getting it. It's all so utterly indulgent and shallow. From what I see, most of them are not very intelligent at all, but they really think they are. I think maybe they mistake drive and ambition with intelligence, because it does give them "success" (sorry for all the quotation marks).
Again, I can't really say if assholes become rich because they're assholes, or if people become assholes as they get rich, or if it's some combination. But really, from all I can tell, most rich people really are assholes. I hate thinking that, but I do.
posted by Red Loop at 1:32 PM on August 10, 2011 [29 favorites]


Little finger out: class
Little finger in: ain't got no
posted by titus-g at 1:33 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I can only conclude from the empathy shown in this thread that......we must all be rich.

No, just privileged.
posted by Ardiril at 1:34 PM on August 10, 2011


Really, I'd like to relate this to a larger conversation about hierarchies in human cultures, but I don't have the time— I gotta go back to work. Yay!
posted by Red Loop at 1:34 PM on August 10, 2011


Hey poor assholes, I think we have to understand that if we were rich, we'd be doing the same thing.

The difference between poor and rich is money. We're still all selfish humans, and just because we have less money doesn't mean we're any nicer.

In fact, I bet that homeless guy who always sees you eating your trader joe's popcorn on the street is wondering why you won't offer him any or give him some money.

He thinks you're as big of an asshole as you think that rich guy in that rich house with the 6 figure car is.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:50 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


He thinks you're as big of an asshole as you think that rich guy in that rich house with the 6 figure car is.

No he doesn't.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:54 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


¡Viva la Revolución!
posted by cashman at 1:55 PM on August 10, 2011


You’re in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a tortoise, it’s crawling toward you. You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t, not without your help. But you’re not helping. Why is that?

You are given a calfskin wallet for your birthday.

You've got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar.

You're watching television. Suddenly you realize there's a wasp crawling on your arm.

You're reading a magazine. You come across a full-page nude photo of a girl. You show it to your husband. He likes it so much he hangs it on your bedroom wall. The girl is lying on a bearskin rug.

You're watching a stage play. A banquet is in progress. The guests are enjoying an appetizer of raw oysters. The entree consists of boiled dog.
posted by robcorr at 1:56 PM on August 10, 2011 [12 favorites]


At the other end of the economic spectrum: Nickel and Dimed (2011 Version): On Turning Poverty into an American Crime
posted by homunculus at 2:05 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you son.

In other news: poor people less able to balance a budget, break out of the vicious cycle of sustenance living, sympathize with the feeling of having your portfolio lose 2.3% in a single day because some day-trading fuckers are short on P&G.
posted by GuyZero at 2:06 PM on August 10, 2011


Eat the Rich
posted by homunculus at 2:12 PM on August 10, 2011


Hey robcorr, you know that Voigt-Kampf test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?
posted by zarq at 2:15 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


Red Loop pretty well nailed it. There are significant exceptions though, and I think wealth-attitudes are culturally based. West Texas, where I grew up, conspicuous consumption is pretty well frowned upon. And people who know that old Joe with the beat up truck is worth millions and millions are not likely to be impressed by some pretty boy with blow dry hair and a leased Mercedes.
posted by Xoebe at 2:28 PM on August 10, 2011


At five years old, it is painfully clear to me that my daughter has a surfeit of empathy, while my son has a surplus. I shall make a mental note to see who ends up wealthier.

and to hit that one up for cash
posted by davejay at 2:28 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Red Loop is obviously too nice to his rich customers to ever be really successful. Seriously. What benefit is he getting by offering advice to those who believe they know it all? To provide extra service to those who just want their orders obeyed? Giving them less and demanding more are the ways to move up in this society (as well as to earn the respect of the rich - well, not really respect, since they are probably not capable of such an emotion).

I've met a few rich people, and gotten to know better the ones who I (and other people) considered 'nice', and the niceness didn't earn them anything; they had specific talents so strong that the niceness didn't cost them... much. Still, it appears that equally talented SOBs were more successful.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:34 PM on August 10, 2011


Human Empathy Through the Lens of Social Neuroscience (pdf download)
posted by Vibrissae at 2:35 PM on August 10, 2011


BobbyVan: Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates...

Charity is great but it should be the icing on the cake. I'd rather pay more taxes and have government agencies and programs handle this stuff on a much broader base and in a less exclusive manner. That way everybody chips in according to their means to help everybody who's in need and we may see less need for charities overall.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:36 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


Second to last paragraph of the first link: There is one interesting piece of evidence showing that many rich people may not be selfish as much as willfully clueless, and therefore unable to make the cognitive link between need and resources.

This strikes me as pretty much right.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:48 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates...

Conservative assumption: everyone is like me. With minimal government, there'd be plenty of help for the poor with all those untaxed dollars. Charity would skyrocket.
Liberal assumption: everyone is like me. With minimal government, there'd be way too little help for the poor. People would spend the extra money on themselves.

Plausible?

that my daughter has a surfeit of empathy, while my son has a surplus. I shall make a mental note to see who ends up wealthier.

Well then it's going to come down other qualities than empathy, right? :)
posted by shivohum at 2:53 PM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


> I wonder what their definition of "the rich" is.

The press release talks about class rather than "the rich". Either way, it's hard to do anything with this press release other than a bunch of confirmation bias without knowing how they define class along with their methodology. Anyone bought the article and care to enlighten?

It would also be interesting to understand whether they, or others, have done any studies of relative class and/or wealth position and its impact on perceived empathy. IIRC, there have been studies indicating relative position in a class cohort has more impact on some attributes (health? general happiness?) than absolute position.
posted by stp123 at 2:55 PM on August 10, 2011


oops. indeed.
posted by davejay at 2:57 PM on August 10, 2011


on the surfeit/surplus thing
posted by davejay at 2:57 PM on August 10, 2011


Paul Fussell, who wrote a book called CLASS, suggests that class is something we are not supposed to talk about in a democracy, where all are equal. He then goes on to define the various classes.

It is of course possible to have "class" and have little money; it is also possible to have lots of money and little "class."
Money is much easier to be objective about. For me, anyone with more than I have is "rich."
posted by Postroad at 3:10 PM on August 10, 2011


FYI, people who've gotten Botox injections in their faces have more difficulty reading others' emotions - yet another way in which people with disposable income (and the urge for a little "work") are different from those who aren't. Probably not directly related to this overall phenomenon, but possibly related to the "previously" link in this post?
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:54 PM on August 10, 2011


I wonder if part of the problem isn't a stress free life. With less stress it's hard for people to understand other's stress and pain.
posted by delmoi at 4:13 PM on August 10, 2011


This is not true. I have lots of empathy. It's just that I empathize most strongly with people who give me their money. Good people, them.
posted by blargerz at 5:01 PM on August 10, 2011


Yes, yes?! I know this, what's your point?!
posted by Meatbomb at 5:19 PM on August 10, 2011


Conflating wealth/income and class is an annoying trait of American culture.

How would you suggest class be designated?


I'm mulling this over. In other cultures, it seems class is assigned via birth, royal appointment, or religious designation. In the US, sometimes it feels like everyone strives to be middle class, regardless of economic standing. Class seems to be more about a way of life and attitude rather than a pure reflection of one's economic standing. Everyone feel fee to correct me though.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:00 PM on August 10, 2011


It's true! When we line the fuckers up, I'll feel bad for the wall.
posted by klangklangston at 9:55 PM on August 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


bonecrusher: "I wonder what their definition of "the rich" is. I remember a study a year or so back that claimed that the US tax code was more progressive than Sweden's (I think - some scandanavian country) that various wingnuts interpreted as "the US tax code punished the rich". Turned out that the study was looking at the relative tax burden of the top 25%, which doesn't seem like a good equivalent of "rich"."

This is an even more ridiculous metric than you might think. Imagine you are in a feudal society where 96% of the population are penniless serfs, and the top 1% controls 95% of the wealth, and pays 40% of the taxes. Forbes spin this as "progressive" and "punishing the rich", because the relative tax burden of the top 1% would be higher than the US today.
posted by alexei at 12:21 AM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


You might not have to lack empathy to become rich -- you might be lucky or you might simply be too focused on success to look up and notice others -- but you probably have to dampen your empathy and isolate yourself to remain rich, because the world is certainly full of people (including me?) who would line up at your door with sad stories if they heard you were wealthy and an easy touch.
posted by pracowity at 1:26 AM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


> I wonder what their definition of "the rich" is.

The press release talks about class rather than "the rich". Either way, it's hard to do anything with this press release other than a bunch of confirmation bias without knowing how they define class along with their methodology.


According to another article about the paper (NYT):
In these experiments, class was determined either by educational level or by self-reported perceptions of family socioeconomic status.

and:

The paper ... recounts three experiments conducted among students and employees of a large (unidentified) public university, some of whom had graduated from college and others who had not.
Another way to spin this might be 'college education interferes with your ability read facial expressions' (or something). Hard to tell.

Here's an absract.

I'd imagine that the more educated (and therefore 'upper class') university employees were mostly college professors, so this doesn't really support the article's contention that Tea Partiers lack empathy. I doubt if many of them were Tea Party supporters. (And before somebody points out that they've met some empathetic college professors, nobody's saying they reported large differences.)
posted by nangar at 4:38 AM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


nangar: The paper described in your NY Times link above, “Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy"--while written by some of the same researchers--is not the same as the current research described in the FPP. The latest research on this topic has been published in “Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm," a new article from the Current Directions in Psychological Science journal.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:32 AM on August 11, 2011


> The paper described in your NY Times link above ... is not the same as the current research described in the FPP.

OK. Thanks for setting me straight about that.
posted by nangar at 8:05 AM on August 11, 2011


My mother's theory is that these rich people, who are mostly white men, do not know empathy and cannot understand others' emotions because they all went to boarding schools. They grew up in a mostly sterile environment surrounded by others who grew up in similar circumstances. No loving, doting family members to help teach them how to be compassionate humans. Now, as adults, they are still surrounded by others from the same upbringing so they have little opportunity to learn.

(My mother has no actual research put into this - it is merely her idea on the subject)
posted by jillithd at 11:40 AM on August 11, 2011


I despise the working class. They're like a different species.
posted by fraac at 8:44 AM on August 13, 2011


You're still missing the point.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:34 PM on August 13, 2011


Really, it's more like, "Quick! Look out for that bus that's going to hit you if you don't dodge it because you don't seem to see it coming from your point of view."

(And also, a little bit of "Aha! That explains it. It's nothing personal after all.")
posted by saulgoodman at 12:53 PM on August 14, 2011


Study: Nice People Are Broke Losers
posted by homunculus at 12:32 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


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