A new study reveals that people from higher income backgrounds struggle with certain aspects of empathy when compared to individuals who have lower incomes, who are better at reading people’s emotions.
The research paper, which was published in the “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,” asked individuals from different class backgrounds to infer others’ emotional states by looking at images of their eyes and to attempt to assume the visual perspective of other people.
The findings suggest that our socioeconomic status may affect the way we see and interact with other people.
Researchers know that there are many things can make it difficult for one person to effectively empathize with another, including neurological conditions like autism and psychological illnesses like schizophrenia. In their study, researchers Pia Dietze of the University of California, Irvine and Eric D. Knowles of New York University attempted to better understand how social class specifically influences Theory of Mind.
“[Theory of Mind] encompasses a range of competencies that together enable people to solve problems in a world full of other minds,” the authors explain. “Examples of ToM include our ability to infer people’s emotions, understand others’ visual perspectives, trace behavior to actors’ underlying intentions and desires, and grasp the fact that others’ beliefs might misportray reality. We focus on two facets of [Theory of Mind] in this work: emotion perception and visual perspective taking.”
The authors concluded, both from their research and by analyzing previous research (some of which they felt was unreliable), that “higher social class is associated with attenuated [theory of mind] performance,” with individuals from higher income backgrounds struggling more to ascertain the emotions and empathize with the visual points of view of other people. One possible explanation for this is that “lower-class individuals—owing to their greater levels of cultural interdependence—may appraise other human beings as more relevant to their goals and well-being than do higher-class individuals.” This would also help people from lower classes to “spontaneously calculate other people’s perspectives.”