A paper by Kraus et al in Psychological Science (as summarized by Pamela Paul in the Jan 2, 2011 NY Times), identifies an empathy gap between`rich’ and `poor’. In short the upper classes, are less able to read the emotions of others. Indeed, one of the authors is quoted as saying:

Upper-class people, in spite of all their advantages, suffer empathy deficits.

The explanation offered is that the lower classes, unable to simply pay people to do things, must rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to get things done.

One must be careful with newspaper summaries of the work of others. After all, journalists place a premium on writing for readers with the concentration of birds. So, it is possible many a nuance and detail were lost between the paper and the summary. Even with this in mind, the summary still peeved me.

1) The experiments involved subjects being asked to read the facial expressions of others. Why is the ability to read facial expressions necessarily a measure of empathy. Surely, words, tone, gestures matter as well. Perhaps, expressions that are easily mimicked are ignored by the upper classes given their long experience of the lower orders trying to conn ┬áthem out of their money (like one of the studies authors, I couldn’t resist grandiose speculation).

2) The term empathy deficit itself grates, suggesting that more empathy is better than less. There can be a surfeit of empathy.

3) There are some things that money can’t buy. Even the upper classes rely on the kindness of strangers ┬áto make their way in the world. They call it networking!

I look forward to studies comparing the ability of the different classes to reduce compound lotteries, avoid the sunk cost fallacy, exhibit ambiguity aversion, hyperbolic discounting etc etc

I notice that no one has yet carried out similar studies comparing the left handed and the right handed on the same dimensions. See this 2006 column in Slate for why this might be worth pursuing.