There’s a growing body of research showing how having money changes the way people see—others and their problems. The latest study by New York University shows that wealthy people unconsciously pay less attention to passersby on the street.
“Across field, lab, and online studies, our research documents that other humans are more likely to capture the attention of lower-class individuals than the attention of higher-class individuals,” says psychological scientist Pia Dietze of New York University. “Like other cultural groups, social class affects information processing in a pervasive and spontaneous manner.”
Previous studies have shown a variety of behavioral differences among people of various social classes — including levels of compassion, interpersonal engagement, charity, ethicality, and empathy toward others. Dietze and co-author Eric Knowles wondered whether these discrepancies might stem, at least in part, from deep, culturally ingrained differences in the way people process information.
The researchers hypothesized that our social class affects how relevant others are to us in terms of our own goals and motivations. Compared with people who come from less-advantaged circumstances, people from relatively privileged backgrounds are likely to be less dependent on others socially; as such, they are less likely to view other people as potentially rewarding, threatening, or otherwise worth paying attention. Importantly, Dietze and Knowles posited that this difference in what they call “motivational relevance” is so fundamental that it manifests in basic cognitive processes — like visual attention — that operate quickly and involuntarily.
In the paper titled, Social Class and the Motivational Relevance of Other Human Beings Evidence From Visual Attention, the researchers describe experiments they conducted to measure the effects of social class on what’s called the “motivational relevance” of other human beings
The NYU team had a group of 61 study participants walk down a city block in Manhattan wearing Google Glass. The pedestrians, who were told they were testing the technology, later filled out surveys asking them to self-identify their social class.
Analyzing the Google Glass recordings, the researchers found that those who had self-identified as wealthy didn’t rest their eyes on their fellow humans for as long as those who said they were from lower social classes.
The researchers conducted a pair of similar follow-up studies using an advanced eye-tracking system. This time, students recruited for the study viewed a series of photographs taken from Google Street View on a computer screen, then answered the same survey about social class. Again, the researchers found that students self-identifying as wealthier spent less time looking at people.
In a separate experiment, the NYU researchers tested whether the difference in the amount of time a participant dwelled on a person was the consequence of a conscious decision or a spontaneous cognitive reaction.
They recruited nearly 400 participants for an online study and had them look at alternating pairs of pictures, each of which contained an array of various items, always including one face and five objects (like fruit, an appliance, or an article of clothing.) One picture would appear briefly on the screen, and then be replaced by a second picture that was either identical or nearly identical to the first.
The two images would keep flickering this way until the participant hit the spacebar to indicate they had detected a change in one of the objects, or the face, in the photo, or that they had decided there had been no change.
People self-identifying as less wealthy were significantly faster than those of a higher social class at noticing change in faces in the photos, a sign, the researchers say, that faces held higher motivational relevance for them.
“Across field, lab, and online studies, our research documents that other humans are more likely to capture the attention of lower-class individuals than the attention of higher-class individuals,” Pia Dietze, a PhD student at New York University and lead author of the study. The response is pervasive and spontaneous, she added.
An earlier study by a University of California, San Francisco psychologist, found that people of a higher socioeconomic status are not as adept at reading other people’s emotions accurately, compared to less affluent peers.
One reason the rich may be less likely to value others is because they can afford to hire help to serve their needs (like child care and home repairs) rather than depend on a neighbor, according to Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley.
Writing in the New York Times, psychologist Daniel Goleman explained that Keltner’s and other social psychologists’ work shows that “financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations…than the rich are, because they have to be.”
This interplay of power, money, and empathy becomes particularly troubling in contemporary economies marked by growing inequality. Goleman and others argue if those who earn more and therefore hold more power do not see (figuratively and literally) those who have less, reversing financial disparity becomes unlikely. As Goleman points out, “Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.”