Social psychologists are making an argument that Occupy Wall Street protesters have been saying for months: Many rich people just aren't in the habit of thinking of others.
According to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, people who grew up in economically comfortable circumstances are less attuned to the suffering of other people. In multiple trials that involved both questionnaires and physical-response tests, the researchers found that young adults whose upbringing involved some degree of financial struggle were quicker and more likely to register signs of empathy than young adults who came from affluent backgrounds.
Such conclusions are especially relevant now, as the Occupy movement continues to focus national attention and criticism on the growing divide between rich and poor.
While some wealthy people have defended themselves as merely embodying the ideals of American capitalism -- a system where, the argument goes, anyone can make it to the top if they're willing to work hard -- many Occupy protesters have offered a less flattering theory: that the rich, as a class, simply aren't concerned with the well-being of anyone else.
The findings of the UC Berkeley team seem to suggest that this might be true, though the researchers make a point of saying it's likely the result of inexperience on the part of the rich, not necessarily malice.
"It's not that the upper classes are coldhearted," Jennifer Stellar, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley and the lead author of the study, is quoted as saying in a press release. "They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives."
This particular piece of research appeared earlier this month in the journal Emotion, but one of the academics involved in the study, psychologist Dacher Keltner, has published at least twice before on the correlation between economic struggle and empathetic response.
Last October, Keltner was part of a research team that found that wealthy people had greater difficulty reading facial expressions. In August, Keltner and others argued that financial security seems to be associated with an impulse to think about oneself more than others -- and that a dozen separate studies had produced the same implication.
But the relationship between wealth and compassion may work both ways. In 2005, researchers found that if a stock trader suffers from some kind of emotional impairment -- that is, brain damage that prevents them from fully experiencing their own emotions -- it may allow them to make more profit on the market, since they can make decisions based more firmly in rationalism.
And in what may be a more extreme example of the same phenomenon, research published earlier this year suggests that some stockbrokers actually have a more pronounced competitive streak than diagnosed psychopaths.