Who best attracts your attention?
1. Somebody with less social power than yourself?
2. Somebody with more power?
3. Somebody with the same?
A growing body of research reports that individuals higher up on the status totem pole tend to essentially tune out anybody beneath them.
In a 2008 study, social psychologists studying pairs of strangers relating such difficult life experiences as death or divorce found that the more powerful were not only less compassionate toward their partner’s hardships but also actually played down any suffering being described.
Dacher Keltner (UC Berkeley) and Michael W. Kraus (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) discovered that the underprivileged are so much better at interpersonal relationships than the affluent because they have to be. While the prosperous can pay, the impoverished must depend on the generosity of friends or relatives.
Emotional intelligence (EI) guru Daniel Goleman contends that the aforementioned studies demonstrate profound implications for societal behavior and government policy. As he wrote in “Rich People Just Care Less,” (New York Times) “in politics, readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them.”
What with House Republicans cutting food stamps and/or impeding the implementation of Obamacare, it would seem that Goleman might be on to something — yet, as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich pointed out, there is plenty of culpability to spread around.
“It’s easy to blame Republicans and the right-wing billionaires that bankroll them,” Reich noted, “and their unceasing demonization of ‘big government’ as well as deficits. But Democrats in Washington (must) bear some of the responsibility. In last year’s fiscal cliff debate, neither party pushed to extend the payroll tax holiday or find other ways to help the working middle class and poor.”
Why not? According to Reich’s analysis, the top 10 percent in net worth are presently tickled silly. Not only do they own 80 percent of the market, but also this year stocks rocketed a whopping 24 percent. Did I also mention that 10-percenters are the ones who contribute to political campaigns and fund “independent” ads as well?
But here’s Reich’s kicker that links directly back to Goleman “Congress,” — consisting of 100 percent 10-percenters, according to Reich — “doesn’t know much about the bottom 90 percent.”
So how does money trigger fat cats into turning a blind eye toward the less fortunate? If a causal link exists, Goleman hasn’t found it.
All he can say is that “tuning in to the needs and feelings of another person is a prerequisite to empathy, which in turn can lead to understanding, concern and, if the circumstances are right, compassionate action.”
So it would appear that the actual variable Goleman is after is “empathy.” However, not everybody buys his doctrine that empathy can be learned.
While emotional intelligence training has been warmly embraced by both academia and the business world in an attempt to address such pesky problems as bullying, sexual harassment, hate crimes and “going postal,” eliminating insensitive habits or behaviors is the only change with EI.
For example, a boss might be trained to silence his pager or smartphone when he sits down to speak to an employee. He is, in essence, forcing himself to pay attention to a subordinate. The question remains — is paying attention actually empathy?
Andrew Carnegie was one of many self-made men who comprised America’s newly minted upper crust. In “The Gospel of Wealth” (1889), he argued that it was up to the rich to deal with this new phenomenon called wealth inequality — since they were the ones who really understood money.
Carnegie pointed out that piling up lucre to overindulge oneself or to pass down to one’s progeny “encourages the slothful, the drunkard, the unworthy” and subsequently fails to benefit society. He urged the creation of a philanthropy that inherently generates opportunities for the deprived to better themselves — and to better America.
To that end, Carnegie funded the construction of public libraries across the fruited plain. Not only does evidence of Carnegie’s benevolence still exist in Ventura County, but the former Carnegie Library in Oxnard — constructed in 1907 to resemble a Greek temple with Doric columns — was repurposed as a public art gallery in 1986.
To Carnegie’s bitter disappointment, none of the other Gilded Age millionaires responded to his invitation. Yet, his “Gospel of Wealth” took on new life in 2010 when Warren Buffett and Bill Gates announced their Giving Pledge campaign.
Signatories promise to donate at least half their wealth to address society’s most pressing problems. According to the Huffington Post, as of July, 113 billionaires signed the commitment.
In fact, Americans, well-heeled and not so well off, routinely make the astounding personal decision to give away, in the aggregate, the equivalent of about 2.2 percent of America’s gross domestic product every year.
Somebody must be paying attention.