Just like you, I think that inequality is harmful to the whole society in many ways. I personally believe that what mostly affects our society nowadays is the lack of empathy inequality generates. As Barack Obama once said, “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”
But is inequality a real cause of the lack of empathy? Perhaps it´s the other way around and the rich get further in life because they’re less worried about other people’s needs.
I think that in some way the lack of empathy contributes to perpetuate a more unequal society. However, it is also true that lack of empathy is one of that main consequences of inequality and there´s even some evidence that confirms it. People with higher socioeconomic status are worse at understanding other people´s emotions, they are more focused on the self. To test if this was an innate condition of the rich, Keltner made an experiment in which he manipulated people´s sense of status. Despite their real socioeconomic status, people temporarily made to feel higher on the social ladder had a harder time understanding others’ emotions. On the other hand, people made to feel lower class showed more empathic. High-income people are not born coldhearted, they are just not good at recognizing people´s emotions , especially when someone is suffering. This was shown by anoter experiment in which some students watched a video about children suffering from cancer. While the heart rate of low-income students slowed down as they watched the video (a physiological sign of compassion), the high-income students´ hearts did not presented any change at all.
It must be noted too that rich people are not just less empathic with poor people, they are less inclined to connect with anyone, even if this person belongs to their same social class. This phenomenon is shown in a study made by Kraus and Keltner in 2009. In their experiment, students from wealthy families were less engaged with conversations than students from a lower social class. They showed disinterest towards the other person that was talking to them; they continuously checked their phones or searched through their bacpacks. Sometimes they didn´t even response or nod, even if that person was as wealthy as them.
Empathy is a necessary value for a society to develop correctly. It´s important in different aspects of life; from a personal level, with friends and family, to a more institutional level, affecting the market in case of lack of trust.
Signs of Socioeconomic Status, A Thin-Slicing Approach. Michael W. Kraus, Dacher Keltner. First Published January 1, 2009 Research Article