|CNN.com, 21-09-2012. By Jason Marsh, Special to CNN
How inequality hurts Romney's happiness
• Jason Marsh: Romney 47% comment bothered
many as attack on most vulnerable
• But, he says, research shows wealthy like
Romney have impaired social emotional skills
• More money linked to less generosity,
empathy, few social connections, less happiness
• Marsh: Inequality may be
self-perpetuating; rich less likely to feel compassion for poor
Editor's note: Jason Marsh is the founding editor-in-chief of the
online magazine Greater Good, published by the The Greater Good Science Center,
which focuses on the "science of a meaningful life" and is based at the
University of California at Berkeley.
The video of Mitt Romney deriding the 47% of Americans "who are dependent upon
government" re-ignited a debate about social class in America this week, exactly
one year after the Occupy Wall Street movement first took to the streets to
protest rising inequality. At a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser, Romney scoffed at
that 47% "who pay no income tax" and "believe they are victims."
Romney's comments bothered many Americans because he seemed to be attacking some
of the most vulnerable members of our society. Aside from whether they actually
"believe they are victims," research has consistently shown that people lower on
the social totem pole suffer significantly worse mental and physical health than
those better off, including higher rates of heart disease, depression, suicide,
several forms of cancer and death.
Yet a new line of psychological research suggests there's another victim of
inequality: the rich themselves. In fact, Romney's comments could make him the
poster child for this research.
In a series of studies, researchers have found that attaining high social status
impairs key social and emotional skills.
For instance, a 2010 study published in Psychological Science found that people
of higher socioeconomic status were worse at reading other people's emotions, a
skill known as "empathic accuracy," a basic part of empathy. In a follow-up
experiment, the researchers -- including Dacher Keltner, my colleague at UC
Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center -- made people feel higher or lower on
the social ladder. Regardless of their actual socioeconomic status, people
temporarily made to feel upper class had a harder time reading other people's
emotions; people made to feel lower class showed better empathy.
This suggests that there's something about the experience of high status that
hurts our ability to connect with others emotionally. Other studies have
suggested that high status makes people less compassionate, less generous and
less interested in connecting with others in general .
Here's why the people at that $50,000-a-plate dinner should care about this
research: The skills that seem to be impaired by elevated status are the same
skills that research has strongly linked to leading a happy, meaningful life. So
as the super rich in this country assume an ever-loftier status above the 47%
(or the 99%), they risk depleting their own reserves of happiness.
"Being compassionate, having empathic accuracy, being trusting and cooperative
-- these are keys to social connection and, in turn, happiness," says UC
Berkeley post-doctoral researcher Paul Piff, the lead author of a study that
found that people of higher socioeconomic status were less willing to share
money with a stranger or make charitable donations. (However, when they were
made to feel lower status, they became more generous; the opposite was true for
people made to feel high status -- they became stingier.)
Indeed, perhaps the dominant finding to emerge from positive psychology research
over the past decade is that our happiness (and health) is largely determined by
the quality and quantity of our social connections. Perhaps that's why
"pro-social" behaviors and emotions -- compassion, empathy, altruism -- have
been so strongly linked to happiness.
Consider: Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, has
consistently found that people report feeling happier after doing nice things
for others. Several neuroscience studies have found that giving to others
activates pleasure regions of the brain. Research by psychologists Lara Aknin
and Elizabeth Dunn has even suggested that spending money on others makes you
happier than spending on yourself. And a Canadian study published last year, led
by Myriam Mongrain, found that after people supported others compassionately for
just five to 15 minutes every day for a week, the compassionate people reported
significant gains in happiness and self-esteem six months later.
These findings suggest an explanation for why, once Americans attain an annual
income of $75,000, more money doesn't seem to bring more happiness: Beyond that
point, perhaps our elevated sense of status brings with it the harmful social
and emotional effects that undercut the joys of more money.
Sure enough, one recent study found that people who were wealthier, or were just
temporarily made to feel wealthier, were worse at savoring everyday pleasures, a
key to happiness, according to prior research.
The research linking wealth and empathy certainly suggests one reason why Romney
has seemed to demonstrate callousness and trouble connecting with voters on the
campaign trail, with his comments about the 47% being just the latest example.
In light of this research, the video of Romney carries another troubling
implication: that inequality may be self-perpetuating, making the rich less
likely to feel compassion for the poor, thereby increasing the economic gap
But we probably don't need to read too much research to appreciate how this
empathy gap is bad for Romney's happiness. Just look at a new Pew Research
Center poll , which shows that he trails President Obama by 8 percentage points,
and 43 points in the area of "connects well with ordinary Americans."
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