Monday, October 7, 2013

Forwarded Article: Rich People Just Care Less

This article, by psychologist Daniel Goleman, was fascinating, and it discusses something that's been bugging me a lot over the past few years: the inability of some people to empathize at all with the misfortune of others. It seems like our culture is evolving into one where a lack of empathy is seen as a strength, and reasonably well-off people who are concerned about the poor, or about the concerns of less empowered groups are dismissed as "PC" or "bleeding-hearts."

I've known for a long time that members of privileged groups generally tend to know (and care) less about the concerns and inner workings of members of less privileged groups. I always assumed it was because it was a survival tactic to know how the ones who have power over you think and feel, and I think there's truth in this.

But this article also raises the interesting fact that less empowered people express more empathy for people who are their social equals than better-off people do. The hypothesis that poorer people are more dependent on social contracts between friends, neighbors and family members certainly makes sense. As reasonably comfortable middle-aged folks, if my husband and I go on vacation, I can hire someone to take care of my dogs. I don't need to trade favors with a friend or neighbor.

 I also remember reading something years ago back in animal behavior class about Imo, a young, female Japanese macaque, who had discovered a way of washing sweet potatoes from a feeding station. As I recall, the female and juvenile monkeys learned the trick by observing her, but the adult males (who are socially dominant in that species) did not. Evidently, the tendency to ignore those below you in the social hierarchy is a more generalized primate, maybe even mammalian, trait.

It's an interesting thing to think about. Maybe it's because I teach for a living, or maybe it's part of the reason I became a writer, but I think people learn as much from those "below" us in the social hierarchy as people can learn from those "above" them. Sometimes the hardest thing to remember as a teacher is to just shut up and listen to one's students sometimes. When we stop caring about, or being able to imagine what it is like to be, those less fortunate or empowered than ourselves, we lose some of what it is to be human.

This article discusses how having friendships with people from different groups helps to decrease the empathy gap. Not surprisingly, having friendships with members from different cultural groups is a strong predictor of decreased prejudice against other members of those groups. I've often wondered if increasing acceptance of people with LGBT orientations among younger straight cisgender people stems from more of them growing up in a world where one is more likely to have friends and relatives who are openly of differing orientations from oneself. It's a lot harder to oppose marriage equality laws if someone you care about is negatively impacted by "one man, one woman" legislation. I know personally, friendships I had in college were pivotal in making me examine the prejudices I had absorbed growing up in a time and place where heteronormative, even homophobic, attitudes were commonplace.

This got me to wondering, though, about the persistence of sexism and misogyny. Why doesn't the experience of growing up in the same household with a mother and sisters, and eventually developing friendships and romantic attachments to women, provide an empathy inoculation for many men? Why do so many men hold so many negative stereotypes about women, even dislike them?  Is sexual disdain a special case, one men are hard-wired to have? If so, one wouldn't expect to find as many men who are free of it as one does. Are there some household situations that are less likely to raise sons that are dismissive of and contemptuous towards women than others?

If I were a social psychologist, I'd so want to investigate this.


  1. Really interesting stuff, E.L., and not surprising to me, in many ways, as far as the empathy thing goes. Remember that old phrase 'birds of a feather flock together'? It seems to hold true for a great many people.

    In terms of rich vs. poor, I can kind of understand how it happens (though I don't approve). Sexism? Not so much. That is a persistent blight in the world today. I don't know if it's hard-wired or just some really deep-seated societal thing. It's better than it used to be, but if feels like it's an excessively hard road, harder maybe than acceptance of the LGBT community. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I suspect that some family structures insulate the males and females from one another more than others. Certainly men who have a bad relationship with their own mothers (or, conversely, whose mothers wait on them hand and foot rather than teaching them to pick up their own dirty underwear), boys who grow up without sisters or female relatives or friends, will likely be more sexist than men who grow up in more egalitarian families. But it's not just that. I know someone who is rampant misogynist, and while his very bad relationship with his now-deceased mom has something to do with this, he also has an older sister to whom he was been pretty close growing up, and he actually tends to date (and is now married to one) women who are pretty ambitious and successful. But this doesn't stop him from spewing political venom about women's rights and equality.

    I don't think it's biological, because there really is some evidence that circumstances, like decreased economic disparity, alter relationship dynamics between men and women. But it may be a case of an underlying human tendency to "other" people is interacting with various traditions and economic realities.

    Most distressing, though, is the lateral disregard that members of disenfranchised groups can have for others. The rancor that sometimes exists between different ethnic groups in poor neighborhoods, gay men who exhibit misogyny, tensions between different minority religious groups, women who look down on LGBT people or ethnic/religious minorities. It would be nice if the experience of being marginalized in one way would always build solidarity with other people who have also been marginalized, but it doesn't always.

    If we could discover a way to encourage empathy, it could be a really powerful force for good, but 1000s of years of attempts via religion, government, education and whatever have been only patchily successful and have sometimes even driven us further apart.

    1. "1000s of years of attempts via religion, government, education and whatever have been only patchily successful and have sometimes even driven us further apart." Sadly, many of these agencies have been saying one thing and doing another for those thousands of years.