No one can pay attention to anything he encounters on his way. It is simply impossible, because we do not have the ability to do so, our attentional resources are limited and our brain can only process a certain amount of information at the same time. However, many people strive to pay attention to the others. Unless they are rich, in this case, they are more likely to neglect the people around them.
In fact, more and more studies show how money changes the way people see the others and their problems. A recent study, conducted by psychologists at the University of New York, shows that rich people, unconsciously, pay less attention to people in the street.
Tell me how much you have and I’ll tell you how much you see
These psychologists have analyzed what is called the “motivational relevance” of other humans. That is, it is assumed that when more value is attributed to something, we are more motivated to pay attention to it, either because it supposes a threat or could represent a potential reward.
The researchers analyzed 61 people walking through the streets of Manhattan using Google Glass. Those persons, who were said to be testing the technology, then had to complete a questionnaire in which was evaluated their social class.
Analyzing the Google Glass recordings, the psychologists discovered that those who ranked themselves as rich did not look at other people as much as those who belonged to lower social classes.
The psychologists continued with another series of experiments, this time adopting a more advanced eye tracking system. On that occasion, the participants had to watch a series of photos taken from Google Street View on a screen and then indicate their social class. Again, it was found that rich people looked at people for a shorter time.
Not satisfied with these results, the researchers wanted to see if the difference in the amount of time each participant watched a person, was the result of a conscious decision or whether it was a spontaneous cognitive reaction.
To do this, they recruited nearly 400 people, who were exposed to a series of photos containing different objects and a face. The trick consisted in the fact that the participants had to identify the difference between two almost identical images, in some of them the human face was different, in others it was one of the objects.
In that case, the less wealthy participants were much faster than those who belonged to high social classes in noticing the change in the faces of the images. This means, without any doubt, that human faces had a greater motivational significance for them.
Richer people have less social and emotional abilities
It is not the first study that comes to these conclusions. In another experiment conducted at the University of California, two videos were shown to the participants: one of them illustrated how to build a patio, and the other the life of children affected by cancer. So it was discovered that the richest people showed less feelings of compassion for the children and their families.
As they watched the videos, all participants also wore cardiac monitors because it is well known that when we emotionally tune in with someone else’s feelings our heart rate slows down. This reaction was observed in participants belonging to lower social classes, but not in the richest, indicating they are less empathic.
Other studies, always conducted at the University of California, has found that people of high socio-economic status are not as well able to perceive the feelings of the others, nor do they do exactly it with precision, as those who belong to lower social classes.
In addition, it was also noted that this was not only a social class prejudice, but it rather seems that richest people pay less attention to everyone, regardless of the social class they belong to. In other words, they generally pay less attention to all the people around them.
Why do the rich get “astray” from those around them?
The psychologists believe that one reason might be that richer persons are less inclined to value the others because they can afford to contract professionals who help them meet their needs rather than relying on friends, family, or the help of others.
According to this theory, the economic difference ends up generating a difference in behavior. Therefore, people of low socio-economic status would be more prepared for interpersonal relationships than wealthy people because they understand their importance and are aware that they need the others and that makes them more socially capable.
Of course, generalization always involves the risk of not considering people who are the exception to the rule, but this series of studies certainly leaves us a clear message: we have to worry about our way of life because our lifestyle will ultimately determine not only how we think, but also how we feel and relate.
In the world, we do not need more spaces to divide us, but more empathy that unites us.
Dietze, P. & Knowles, E.D. (2016) Social Class and the Motivational Relevance of Other Human Beings: Evidence From Visual Attention. Psychol Sci; 27(11):1517-1527.
Stellar, J.E. et. Al. (2012) Class and compassion: socioeconomic factors predict responses to suffering. Emotion; 12(3): 449-459.
Kraus, M.W. et. Al. (2010) Social class, contextualism, and empathic accuracy. Psychol Sci; 21(11):1716-1723.
Kraus, M.W. & Keltner, D. (2009) Signs of socioeconomic status: a thin-slicing approach. Psychol Sci; 20(1): 99-106.