The Higher Your Social Class, the Worse You Are at Reading People

According to a new study, anyway

This article is from the archive of our partner .

According to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, people of higher social classes are worse than people of lower social classes at reading the emotional states of others. The authors of the study found that people with a college education, and people who reported themselves as belonging to a high socioeconomic group, were relatively bad at gauging the emotions of strangers in person or by looking at pictures. By contrast, people who hadn't graduated from college or who classified themselves among a lower socioeconomic group performed better at these tasks. Here's a look at the reactions and possible implications:

  • How the Study Was Conducted  According to a press release from Psychological Science, the study compared groups of people who had and had not graduated from college, a distinction that "researchers used ... as a proxy for social class." The people who graduated from college were less able to look at a picture of someone and accurately judge what the person was feeling. In another experiment, "university students who were of higher social standing (determined from each student's self-reported perceptions of his or her family's socioeconomic status) had a more difficult time accurately reading the emotions of a stranger during a group job interview." A third trial found that "when people were made to feel that they were at a lower social class than they actually were, they got better at reading emotions."
  • So What Does This Mean?  "These results suggest that people of upper-class status aren't very good at recognizing the emotions other people are feeling," says the PS press release. "The researchers speculate that this is because they can solve their problems ... without relying on others--they aren't as dependent on the people around them."
  • This Could Explain a Lot  "Notwithstanding the usual caveats surrounding a single experiment, or the perils of extrapolating from the psychology laboratory to the complexities of the real world, this is an authoritative study which deserves to be taken seriously," writes Ally Fogg at The Guardian. "This may help to explain the middle-class phenomenon of rightward drift through the decades. Perhaps we don't tend to become more rightwing as we grow older, but we grow more rightwing as and when we move up the socioeconomic hierarchy."
  • What Are the Implications From a Gender Perspective?  Time's Maia Szalavitz points out that "the influence of power could also be the reason that some studies find a gender difference in empathetic accuracy favoring women: they frequently have less power than men." Playing off the same theme, Fogg wonders, "To what extent has women's historical role as nurturers and carers been not just a cause of their lower social status relative to men, but also a consequence of it? If so, might some loss of female empathy be a price that has to be paid for social equality?"
  • Going Forward, Researchers Will Need to Correct for Social Class  "One of the important realizations by psychology researchers over the past few decades is that it is important to take into account whether research participants are males or females, Black or White or Latino or Asian, and older or younger," writes Christopher Peterson at Psychology Today. "Here is one more important characteristic for psychologists to take into account: social class... [which] influences a psychological ability as basic as empathy."
  • Memo to Washington  Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds can't resist a jab at the D.C. establishment. "Upper-Class People Have Trouble Recognizing Others' Emotions," Reynolds quotes from a headline elsewhere. "This explains a lot in today's politics ... "
  • An Alternate Explanation  Maybe, says Liz Colville at The Hairpin, it's the case that "rich people don't have to 'rely on others,' so they don't ever have to be attuned to how other people are feeling." But she offers another possible reading: "Rich people keep their feelings locked up in a safe inside a safe inside a safe, with their money in the outermost safe and their jewelry and timepieces in the second one. If they were going to try to understand what the face models in the study were thinking they would have to go into the safe(s). It would just take a long time and they don't actually know the codes; there is a person who normally does this but they're off today."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.