Do the rich really care less?

Let’s begin with the fact that Daniel Goleman is a relatively rich and powerful writer who often is a frequent contributor to the most influential newspaper in the country. That ought to put a smile on your face when you see the headline of his recent essay in The New York Times, “Rich People Just Care Less.”

One hopes that this will be a confessional piece about Goleman’s own hard-heartedness. Instead, he is talking about the other rich people; specifically those meanies in Congress who want to cut food stamps and Obamacare, not because they are concerned about our $17 trillion national debt, but because of a perceived empathy gap.

His article is tendentious nonsense that flies in the face of all common sense.

He writes: “A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power.”

Is this news? Does anybody (ok, there a few exceptions) spend their days worrying about those who can’t help or don’t threaten them? By definition people with power have fewer people who can exercise power over them. Why wouldn’t they focus more of their energy on that group? In theory (more on that later) the less powerful ought to be attuned – for the same self-interested reason – to the wider group of people who can help or hinder them. By necessity, they ought to have a wider vision, though in reality, many of them just tune out vast swaths of the world which is one reason why the poor and weak are less likely to vote than the rich and powerful.

Goleman continues: “The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.”

I haven’t read the studies this is based on – did they include 10 people or 10 million? But, even if true, Goleman’s effort to cast this as a form of moral superiority flies in the face of basic self-interest and common sense. Of course the less powerful are more compassionate towards the hardships experienced by those like themselves: after all, it is easier for them to imagine that they, too, might suffer the same fate. Of course someone who fears that they may not have enough money to feed themselves or take their children to the doctor should be more likely to express compassion toward those enduring such tragedies. This is why a cyclone in Oklahoma elicits more concern among Americans than one in Bangladesh and why a shortage of flu vaccines at home is more worrisome than the deaths of millions each year from very treatable malaria.

Goleman pretty much admits that self-interest is behind it all when he says a researcher has found “that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work.”

He runs off the rails when he follows that up with this: “The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.”

In fairness, Goleman fails to define what he means by interpersonal relations but does anybody believe that, as a group, the poor are better attuned to interpersonal relations than the rich? Does anybody truly believe that your average welfare recipient is a better people person than a successful reporter at the New York Times?

In our service-oriented economy, greater numbers of people – especially at the top – make their money through their people skills. Leadership rests, in large part, on the ability to think about others, to know their strengths and weaknesses and put them in the best position to succeed. To argue that poor people have mastered this essential skill – and still they struggle – while the rich have a hard time understanding and relating to others is absolute nonsense; so much so that you wonder how such an assertion could ever get published.

1 Comment

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