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Upper class less capable at reading emotions, study says

Rich, upper-class folks are less capable than lower-class individuals at reading the emotions of others, according to a recent study.
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Written by Andrew Nusca, Former editor on

"Let them eat cake" was never more clear than now.

According to an October 2010 paper published by the Association for Psychological Science, wealthy, affluent or upper class folks are less capable at reading the emotions of others.

The study, brought to my attention by a New York Times article published just before the New Year, is the work of three psychological researchers: Michael Kraus of the University of California, San Francisco; Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto; and Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley.

The researchers tested the idea that individuals of a lower social class are more empathically accurate in judging the emotions of other people.

To do so, they conducted three studies comparing lower- and upper-class individuals:

  • A test of empathetic accuracy by looking at pictures of faces;
  • A test of judging the emotions of another person during simulated job interviews;
  • A test of identifying someone's emotion by analyzing pictures of the eye expressions of another.

The result: lower-class folks (as defined by education or self-identified socioeconomic status) understood other people better.

The authors write:

The association between social class and empathic accuracy was explained by the tendency for lower-class individuals to explain social events in terms of features of the external environment.

Previous research has indicated that lower-class folks have developed more effective social skills because they need to rely on others to meet needs or accomplish goals.

Conversely, upper-class folks aren't equipped to pick up on emotional nuance, and aren't as sympathetic to the plights of others.

The inference, of course: those that fulfill the "American Dream" of rising from rags to riches (or vice versa) may have the means, psychologically and financially, to sympathize with the other class.

The findings have ramifications all over the place, most notably in the workplace. The findings are useful in both directions, too -- by understanding each other's point of view a bit better, perhaps there could be less friction between the classes.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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