Wealthy People Poorer at Reading Emotions?

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Reading Emotions

Claire Perlman talks about the results of the study and how scientists plan to utiilize the findings.


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With low socioeconomic status comes economic and social vulnerability. But with that vulnerability may come a greater ability to read facial expressions, according to a study published in the November issue of Psychological Science.

Researchers from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and the University of Toronto found that people in lower socioeconomic classes are more aware of the emotions of people around them than those in higher socioeconomics classes.

Michael Kraus, co-author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at UCSF, said that this empathic accuracy - the ability to accurately infer the emotions of others - stems from the dependence those with less money or less education often have on others to maintain stability in their lives.

"These people who have fewer economic resources and who are really vulnerable to health hardships tend to develop these chronic behaviors that are characterized by increased interdependence, increased helping behavior toward other individuals, increased charity toward other individuals and also increased capacity to read others' emotions," Kraus said.

The study was a compilation of three tests, each seeking to measure how well individuals from upper and lower socioeconomic classes were able to read the emotions of others. In one of the studies in which education was used as a proxy for class status, those with just a high school education were significantly better at correctly identifying the emotions of faces in photographs presented to them in a test, scoring 106.2, while their college-educated counterparts scored 99.4, according to the study.

This outcome resulted from upper-class individuals' tendency to focus on their own characteristics, whereas lower-class individuals are more focused on their social surroundings and therefore are more aware of the emotions and actions of others, the study stated.

The researchers extended the first test to include a hypothetical job interview, in which lower-class individuals scored higher in judging the emotions of the people they interacted with, according to the study.

The effects a lower socioeconomic status has on interpersonal relations have never been thoroughly studied before, Kraus said. Rather, most research has focused on the pathological consequences of insufficient economic resources.

"We're looking at it differently than other psychologists have in the past," he said. "Mostly people have focused on the pathological environment that people of lower socioeconomic status experience and how it's bad for them. And it certainly is bad. But we've been examining the behaviors that arise from these environments, and some of the behaviors are actually good, so that's been our mission."

The study follows a similar study conducted in July that found that people with a lower socioeconomic status are, in fact, more generous with their resources than the upper class, despite the financial hardship such generosity may cause.

"In general these patterns that we're seeing are not irreversible," Kraus said. "That wealthier individuals are less giving or less empathic is not something that is part of their DNA. It's part of the social context, so if you can motivate helping behavior or giving by making wealthier people more concerned about others you can really eliminate these differences."

Tags: UCSF, UC BERKELEY DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY, PSYCHOLOGY SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO


Claire Perlman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]



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