Wondering why your fat cat boss seems so clueless about why you don’t want to work extra shifts during the holidays? It could be because he can’t understand the dour looks you keep throwing his way.
Upper-class people are less adept at reading other people's emotions than their lower-class counterparts, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
“We found that people from a lower-class background – in terms of occupation, status, education and income level – performed better in terms of emotional intelligence, the ability to read the emotions that others are feeling,” says Michael Kraus, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral student in psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.
In other words, if you’re looking for a little empathy, you’re more likely to get it from a poor person than a rich one (just ask Bob Cratchit).
In a series of studies, more than 300 upper- and lower-class people were asked the interpret the emotions of people in photos and of strangers during mock job interviews.
In both cases, those with more education, money and self-defined social status weren’t nearly as adept at figuring out if a person was angry, happy, anxious or upset as their lower class colleagues.
Kraus says that's likely because people from lower-economic backgrounds may have to rely on others for help.
“You turn to people, it’s an adaptive strategy,” he says. “You develop this sort of heightened independence with other individuals as a way to deal with not having enough individual resources.”
Upper-class people, on the other hand, don’t need to ask for help that often.
“One of the negative side effects of that is that they’re less concerned and less perceptive of other people’s needs and wishes. They show a deficit in empathic accuracy.”
Does this mean rich people have more a tendency to be, well, insensitive jerks?
“I wouldn’t say that upper-class people are being jerky, but they’re less aware of other people’s emotions,” says Kraus. “If a person is upset, they don’t see it. Similarly, if a person is happy and excited, they may not react to that either.”
Kraus admits the results he and his colleagues came up with “scare us a little bit” but says the effects aren’t permanent. In fact, in another experiment they conducted, upper-class people became much better at reading emotions once they were asked to imagine themselves on the other end of the economic, educational or social spectrum.
In other words, much like Ebenezer Scrooge, even your fat cat boss may one day see the light.