Wealth and Empathy

This post is motivated by an Opinion piece in the Outlook Section of the 23 October issue of the Washington Post by Karen Weese.  The title of the piece is “How can you tell if someone is kind?  Ask how rich they are.”

Past healthy memory blog posts have reported arguments by some who say that humans have the quality of empathy, which computers can never have.  HM has never bought these arguments.  One might argue that computers might not be able to feel empathy, computers can, and perhaps already have, shown the capacity to show empathy.  Moreover, this facility will increase over time.  If you read some of the healthymemory blog posts based on the book “Progress,” one finds scant historical evidence for empathy. Current events lead to the belief that perhaps most of the world’s problems can be attributed to a famine of empathy.

Ms. Weese begins with an anecdote about the tips she and a friend left at a Denny’s restaurant.  The bill was $11 and her friend tossed a $5 tip on the table.  Ms Weese was amazed.  Her friend worked as a caregiver and was raising two children on less than $19k a year.  Her friend explained, cocking her head at their waitress, who was visibly pregnant and speed-walking from table to table with laden platters in the busy restaurant.  “She’s been on her feet for probably six hours already and has three more to go, she has a baby on the way, you know she’s exhausted, and somehow she still took great care of us like she’s supposed to.  She needs it more than I do.”

Reese writes that “There’s little question that people find it easier to give when they see something of themselves in the recipient.”  She notes that families of cancer survivors participate eagerly in fundraising walks.  She also argues that it is also why hedge fund manager John Paulson gave $400 million last year to endowment rich Harvard University, and not to, say, Habitat for Humanity.

A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that affluent people in homogeneously wealthy zip codes are less generous than equally affluent people in mixed-income communities.  People in homogeneous rich communities are less likely to see homeless people.

A study by Yale professor Michael Kraus found that when shown human faces with different expressions, lower-income participants are better than their more affluent counterparts at identifying the emotions correctly.

University of California psychology professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner recorded video at four way stop signs.  They found that the drivers of Toyotas and other inexpensive cars were four times less likely to cut off other drivers than the people steering BMWs and other high-end cars.  In a related experiment, drivers of more modest cars were more likely to respect the right-of-way of pedestrians in a cross-walk, while half the drivers of high-end cars motored right past them.  Other experiments have shown that lower income subjects were less likely than high income subjects to cheat, lie, and help themselves to a jar of candy meant for kids.

Other research has shown that just thinking about money can make people act more selfishly.  An experiment by University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Vohs primed some study participants with images of money or asked them to unscramble lists of words than included terms like “cash” and “bill”.  They were less likely than the unprimed participants to give money to a hypothetical charity.  And when a research assistant appeared to accidentally drop a box of pencils on the floor right beside the participants, money-primed subjects were less willing to help pick them up.

Of course, the question is why does this difference occur.  Initial evidence indicates that the difference can be found in brain activity.  When Keely Muscatell of the University of North Carolina Keely Muscatell showed high and low income subjects photos of human faces with accompanying human stories, the brains of the low-income subjects demonstrated much more activity in the areas associated with empathy than the rich subjects’ brains.

When Jennifer Stellar of the University of Toronto showed videos of children at St. Jude’s hospital undergoing medical procedures, lower-income viewers exhibited more heart-rate deceleration than their higher-income counterparts.  Scientists use heart-rate deceleration as a measure of compassion.

So, how can rich people become more empathetic?  Other research has found that rich subjects began to act more empathetically toward others when shown a vivid, emotional video about kids in poverty.

Regardless of wealth, it is well known that people respond better to the plight of a single case than that of a whole group.  This has been termed the “identifiable victim bias.”

Reese ends her piece as follows: “Perhaps all of us who do not worry about where our next meal is coming from could stand to widen our lens.”

HM believes that meditation will increase empathy.  Should it not increase empathy, then it is not being done properly.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One Response to “Wealth and Empathy”

  1. Jolyn Says:

    Suprirsing to think of something like that

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