Homeless But Not Heartless!


Poor people are quicker than middle-class or rich individuals to recognize the suffering of others and to show compassion, according to a new study.

It included more than 300 young adults who were divided into groups that took part in three experiments designed to assess their levels of empathy and compassion.

The findings challenge previous research that concluded lower-class people are more likely to react with anxiety and hostility when faced with adversity, said the researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

“These latest results indicate that there’s a culture of compassion and cooperation among lower-class individuals that may be born out of threats to their well-being,” study author and social psychologist Jennifer Stellar said in a university news release.

“It’s not that the upper classes are cold-hearted. 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,” she explained.

The findings, published online Dec. 12 in the journal Emotion, suggest a scientific basis for emotional differences between the rich and poor that are depicted in such Charles Dickens classics as “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities.”

The results also indicate that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may do better in cooperative settings than those who are wealthy.

“Upper-class individuals appear to be more self-focused, they’ve grown up with more freedom and autonomy,” Stellar said. “They may do better in an individualist, competitive environment.”


A growing body of research says the rich tend to display distinct behavior that can be mostly characterized as mean. Since much of this behavior is implicit and subconscious, calling them out or nudging them to correct it can make it better. In a world where income inequalities are only rising, and where amassing money is an avowed objective pursued without a tinge of regret, it might make sense to pause and ask if we are turning out to be rich and somewhat soulless.


Paul Piff at the University of California, Berkeley, ran a series of experiments to observe how those who have more money behave in a given situation, compared to those with less. He found that players in a rigged game of Monopoly that awarded them twice the money as their opponent, and let them roll both dices, began to display behaviors that were dominant, loud and aggressive. They moved their coins around the board with a thud, ate more of the free snack, and spoke loudly.


At the end of the game, they attributed their success to their strategy and skill, completely sidestepping the fact that they entered the game with privilege. Researchers explain that the rich tend to rationalize their advantage, and believe that they deserved it. They pursue their self-interest and moralize greed easily. The misuse of power and privilege and growing unethicality in societies is increasingly seen as arising from such attitudes.


The lack of empathy and compassion in the rich as compared to the poor is also well documented. In an experiment, the rich took twice the amount of candies meant for kids as compared to the poor! Micheal Kraus of Yale University who specializes in the study of hierarchies, points out that the poor are likely to more accurately judge the emotions of other persons; make more accurate inferences about such emotions, and have higher empathic accuracy as compared to the rich. The rich are not very good at reading the emotions of others and lack empathy and compassion. This deficit stems primarily from their lack of dependence on others.

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