Level of empathy for unhappiness based on social status


People with strong egalitarian values ​​believe that all groups in society should be equal. Alternatively, anti-egalitarians believe that some social groups should be at the top of society and others should be at the bottom.

Which group – egalitarian or anti-egalitarian – would express more empathy for the plight of others, for example, someone whose work has been cut off or whose house has been broken into?

According to new research published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Brian Lucas, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at ILR School, and Nour Kteily at Northwestern University, the level of empathy that egalitarians and anti-egalitarians express towards the plight of others depends on whether that other person occupies a high or low position in society.

The research included more than 3,000 people who responded to eight surveys. In one study, participants read a script about John, who works in a manufacturing company. The script described how John’s work benefits had recently been reduced and explained the negative impact this would have on John and his family.

In one condition John was described as one of the wealthiest cadres in the organization and in another condition John was described as one of the working class factory workers in the organization.

Researchers found that egalitarians expressed more empathy for John than anti-egalitarians when John was described as a factory worker. But egalitarians expressed less empathy for John than anti-egalitarians when John was described as an executive.

“Previous research has mainly found that, on average, egalitarians are more empathetic than anti-egalitarians. Our research comes in and says context matters. It’s not that egalitarians and anti-egalitarians are inherently able or unable to express empathy, but that they are more or less motivated to express empathy depending on who they are asked to sympathize with. Lucas said.

Research also demonstrates the role that empathy plays in people’s reactions to political decisions that influence high and low-ranking members of society.

For example, one study looked at support for legacy college admissions policies, which tend to help people at the top of society, and support for affirmative action policies, which tend to help people at the bottom. of the society. Participants first read the story of a college candidate who qualified for either a legacy admissions program or an affirmative action program. Then they read that the applicant college had terminated its admissions program which would have helped the student gain admission.

Researchers found that egalitarians, compared to anti-egalitarians, felt less empathy for the candidate who lost the opportunity to benefit from a legacy admissions program, and this predicted lower support from policy participants. inherited admission.

The opposite result has been found for anti-egalitarians. Compared to egalitarians, anti-egalitarians felt less empathy for the candidate who lost the opportunity to benefit from an affirmative action program, which predicted lower support from participants in affirmative action policies. The empathy that people feel for those affected by a given policy is an important predictor of whether people will support that policy.

Lucas grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the town of Campbell, in the southern part of New York State, and has spent the last few years working with business leaders from the Kellogg School of Management and the Booth School. of Business. He said it is likely that the combination of experiences with workers at the top and bottom of their organizations caught his interest in the hierarchy.

“The research sheds light on how people’s core beliefs, in this case beliefs about hierarchy, can influence their judgments and attitudes towards other people and important social issues,” Lucas said.

Mary Catt is Assistant Director of Communications at ILR School.

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