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Ourview | The difficulty with empathy

Ourview | The difficulty with empathy
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First Published: Wed, Dec 21 2011. 09 43 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Dec 21 2011. 09 43 PM IST
It looks like everything you read in those Charles Dickens novels and saw in Raj Kapoor films is true: rich people simply don’t care for other people. But to be fair, new research now suggests that they may not have the ability to recognize suffering in other people.
Earlier this week, the University of California, Berkeley, announced that a study comprising around 300 young adults from different ethnic and social backgrounds indicates that people from the “upper-middle and upper classes were less able to detect and respond to the distress signals of others”.
Overall results, the news release explains, showed that when emotionally charged situations arise, the amount of empathy and compassion people show is inversely proportional to their socio-economic status. However, the researchers seemed eager to point out that this is not because richer people are bad people. Or that they are, in some way, “cold-hearted”. Instead, lead researcher and social psychologist Jennifer Stellar suggests richer people may not be capable of “recognizing signals of suffering” because they’ve seldom seen these signals.
In other words, wealthy people—or the 1%, as they are known in the US—seem less capable of recognizing and responding to the stress and anxiety of the other 99% because they haven’t experienced too much stress and anxiety themselves.
While broader conclusions may be premature, the study comes at an interesting time, when the world is in economic turmoil. Resultantly, it makes intuitive sense, in the current economic environment. The US has witnessed broadening income inequality that is now manifesting itself in the “occupy” protests. In Greece, the public seems entrenched in opposing the government’s attempt at austerity. Closer home, measures such as the food security law may wreak havoc for public finances, but everyone agrees that it probably makes sound political sense.
Much of the debate on how to improve the lives of the poor is conducted by the rich and powerful. This is perhaps the reason why numbers such as the Rs 32 poverty line are debated and discussed dispassionately. The Berkeley research indicates that what may be required to draft meaningful policy is to involve the victims and not the experts. The experts can’t care even if they want to.
Are experts cold-hearted? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Dec 21 2011. 09 43 PM IST