It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.
“Are the upper classes really indifferent to the hopes, fears and miseries of ordinary folk? Or is it that they just don’t understand their less privileged peers? According to a paper by three psychological researchers…members of the upper class are less adept at reading emotions.” (“As For Empathy, The Haves Have Not” 12/30/2010)
Wealth and status have always been touchy subjects in friendship. It’s an uncomfortable moment when your BFF wants to order a seven course-meal at the fanciest restaurant in town and you have to say you can’t afford it.
I wrote about this situation last summer and commenters got riled up. Money—especially when it’s tight—is a sore spot. One reader said she recently lost a friend because of a split-the-bill situation gone wrong.
According to this new research, people with money to spare aren’t necessarily being selfish or inconsiderate when they act clueless about a friend’s financial circumstances. They just don’t have as strong a capacity for empathy.
“Here’s why: Earlier studies have suggested that those in the lower classes, unable to simply hire others, rely more on neighbors or relatives for things like a ride to work or child care. As a result, the authors propose, they have to develop more effective social skills — ones that will engender good will.”
If you’ve never had to ask for similar help, the authors’ logic goes, then you’ve never had to hone your people skills.
It’s an interesting argument, and it makes sense on the surface. But I have plenty of friends who grew up incredibly privileged, and many of those friends now use their advantages to help others. They may not be able to walk in the shoes of the “have-nots,” but they are certainly not “indifferent to the hopes, fears and miseries of ordinary folk” and I think they do understand their less privileged peers.
I don’t do the research, I just report it, but here’s what I think (for whatever it’s worth): Empathy can be taught. If you don’t have empathy, if you can’t bring yourself to understand where another person is coming from, it might be because it was never modeled for you. Not just because you have money.
Perhaps, if one is raised in a home of privilege, she is less likely to get empathy exposure. And thus has less of it as an adult. Maybe that’s where the research comes from.
I don’t know. It’s just a theory.
What do you think? Have you found that people in the upper-class have a harder time relating to others? Are cross-class relationships impossible to maintain?