Posts Tagged ‘Michael Kraus’

Calls for Racial Justice Gained Steam with Empathy

June 30, 2020

The title of this piece is identical to the title of an article by Jamil Zaki in the Health & Science Section of the 23 June 2020 issue of The Washington Post. The subtitle asks the question, what kept people from supporting these movements before?

A key answer to this question comes from research on the perverse relationship between power and empathy. Empathy is people’s ability to share and understand each other’s experience. Empathy is not a hard-wired trait, but a skill . The right experiences, habits and practices can increase our empathic capacity, the same way we can get stronger by going to the gym. But there is s dark side to this idea: Other experiences can cause our empathy to atrophy, similar to a muscle we don’t use.

Power and privilege can sap our ability to understand others. In a series of studies, psychologist Michael Kraus and his colleagues measured people’s socio-economic status, as well as their ability to decipher emotions in pictures and in-person interactions. People higher in status were less accurate about other people’s feelings. Recent work has replicated these results and also found that high-status individuals make more errors when trying to take other people’s perspective.

Kraus and his colleagues have documented the empathic failures that come with privilege. Higher-status individuals display less interest when talking with strangers and report less concern for the suffering of others. These gaps play out in racial contexts as well. In another study, Kraus found that high-income white Americans overestimate racial economic equality more than black Americans or low -income white Americans.

These findings were bleak enough to make one journalist conclude, “power causes brain damage.” But powerful people are not incapable of empathy and should not be let off the hook from working at it. Like other skills, empathy takes practice, and people practice it when they are motivated to do so. Individuals who are relatively underprivileged realize they need others to succeed whereas people with power often deicide they can go it alone. Consistent with this idea, lower-status individuals pay more attention to faces, people and social cues than those with high status.

People without power often have to understand the perspective of high-power groups, which is the default in media, culture and work. By contrast, high-status individuals don’t have to understand others perspective to survive. This is one way privilege works its way into our minds. Not only are privileged people exempt from material struggles, they can comfortably ignore everyone else’s.

In some cases, powerful individuals have incentives not to understand. Genuinely peering into others’ worlds might force them into ugly realizations that they contribute to and benefit from injustice. To avoid that discomfort, they might turn down their empathy even further. In one series of studies, psychologists reminded members of high-power groups—such as white Americans—of their group’s responsibility for past violence—for instance, against Native Americans. Participants responded by dehumanizing victims to avoid guilt.

This is one irony of power: It expands the change a person could make while narrowing the aperture of whom they truly see. But this is not inevitable. When powerful people choose to empathize, they become more cooperative and more invested in justice. In one particularly relevant series of studies, Emile Bruneau and his colleagues asked members of low-power groups to “perspective give,” sharing their stories, and high-power individuals to perspective, paraphrasing what they’d heard. These dialogues increased connection and positive regard between groups—not by ignoring existing power structures but by reversing them.

In the past few weeks, many people have opened their eyes to suffering they had previously ignored. Much credit for this should go to activists and organizers who have made it harder to look away. Can increase in concern about racial injustice last? Empathy is a powerful psychological spark, but it often extinguishes quickly to support long-term change. As emotional stories leave our collective consciousness, people move on. Suffering continues, but those in power no longer see it.

Rather than depending on empathy to last, another strategy would be to leverage the care and energy of this moment into structural change—for instance, commitments to diversity leadership in education, business, and government. Rather than depending on people in power to listen more intently, change might come when we ensure the people who have previously been kept out of power have more chances to speak and be heard.

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Science Explains the World of Manafort and Gates

August 22, 2018

This post is based on an article by William Wan in 18 August 2018 its of the Washington Post. The article asks the question are rich people more likely to lie, cheat, and steal?

This is a timely question as Paul Manafort’s trial has revealed details of his alleged crimes: defrauding banks out of tens of millions of dollars, evading taxes by stashing huge sums in offshore accounts and using riches earned through unregistered word for governments to buy $15,000 ostrich and python jackets. Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy testified about the small fortune he spent on globe-trotting infidelities. And last week, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) was charged with insider trading. Scandals have shown Trump’s Cabinet members flouting government rules and ethics for private jet rides $31,000 dining table sets, $43,000 soundproof booths and questionable business trips abroad.

Dasher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkely has spent decades studying wealth, power, and privilege. He said, “To researchers who study wealth and power, it’s dismaying but not surprising, because it tracks so closely with our findings. The effect of power is sadly one of the most reliable laws of human behavior.” Six years ago, Keltner and a then graduate student in his lab, Paul Piff, published influential innovative research that confirmed many of our worst assumption about the rich and the corrupting power of wealth.

In one study, the researchers stationed themselves at a busy intersection with four-way stop signs and tracked the model of every car whose driver cut off others instead of waiting their turn. People driving expensive cars—like a brand-new Mercedes—were four times more likely to ignore right-of-way laws than those in cheap cars like an old beat-up Honda. Keltner said, “ It told us that there’s something about wealth and privilege that makes you feel like you’re above the law, that allows you to treat others like they don’t exist.”

Next, they had a researcher play a pedestrian trying to cross at a crosswalk and tracked which cars stopped as the law requires and which blew right past him. Every one of the cheapest cars stopped, while half of the expensive cars ignored the pedestrian in the crosswalk, many even making eye contact. Pedestrians need to be aware of this study. It could save their lives.

Religious leaders have been issuing warnings throughout the ages about the corrupting effects of wealth and power. Buddha gave up the rich life of a prince for enlightenment (and found it!). Jesus warned his disciples a camel would have an easier time squeezing through the eye of a needle than a rich man trying to get into God’s kingdom.

In the past few decades, a growing body of psychology research has tried to capture and measure the exact effect of wealth and behavior and morality. This research has shown the rich cheat more on their taxes. They cheat more on their romantic partners. The wealthy and better-educated are more likely to shoplift (HM finds this quite surprising). They are more likely to cheat on games of chance. They are often less empathetic. In studies of charitable giving, it is often the lower-income households that donate higher proportions of their income than middle-class and many upper-income folk.

Keltner and Piff in their 2015 paper found the rich are more likely to literally take candy from children. In that experiment, they first asked 129 subjects to compare their finances with people who had either more or less money. Then they give their subjects a jar of candy and told them the sweets were intended for children in a nearby lab but they could take some if they wanted. Those who felt richer after comparing their finances to poorer people took significantly more candy for themselves.

The findings build on similar research in recent years that suggest wealth and power strip people of their inhibitions, increase risk taking and feelings of entitlement and invulnerability. At the same time, power makes people less empathetic and able to see others’ perspectives.

Adam Galinsky of the Columbia Business School says, “Wealth is basically a mechanism for power and power has a freeing effect on people. It takes away the constraints of society and frees people to act according to their dominant desires.” His experiments have explored how power often propels people’s actions. In some cases, those desires may be altruistic or helpful to society, so power heightened those goals and can give rise to effective philanthropies. Often, however, power leads to self-serving behaviors unrestrained by the usual concerns over rules or the consequences for others.

Because much of the psychological research into wealth and power is relatively new, many of the findings are still being tested and need to be confirmed by replication, researchers say. Michael Kraus, a social psychologist at Yale’s School of Management says, “I wouldn’t say these questions are settled. There are disagreements about the exact effect of wealth on ethics and how large the effect is.” But the research has never seen such booming interest and momentum, with the growing inequality in America and a multimillionaire born into wealth in the White House.

Kraus said, “There’s a lot of reasons we should care about the ethics of wealthy people. Even if research found that they were no more unethical as anyone else, their influence on the world is so much greater. If someone like me steals something, it only affects a handful of people. But if someone like Manafort steals or lies or cheats it affects so many more people. There are foreign governments and banks involved. You start getting into that area where it can affect the whole country and the course of democracy.”

HM thinks that this discussion ignored an extremely important variable, and that is differences in individuals. There are billionaires like Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates who are giving away their fortunes. They do not believe in inherited wealth, which is particularly pernicious. And the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is using the tools of operations research to maximized the benefits of their giving. We need to learn how to produce more rich people to pursue the paths of these three outstanding individuals.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2018. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.