When you think of dismissive or condescending behavior, what do you think of? Giving someone the “cold shoulder,” or simply looking down on someone that you deem below you? These are all very descriptive and accurate when thinking of the divide between those considered being rich and the remainder of the population.
Without a doubt there is a significant social distance that exists between those that have acquired a large amount of power and the individuals that do not hold this greater power – combined with a distance that actually goes much further than just interpersonal interactions, and that may actually be enhancing and increasing the inequality that is currently present in the U.S.
Recent research has shown that those that hold the largest amount of social power do not pay very much attention to those that do not hold power that is equal or greater to their own. In fact, this type of tuning out is observed in groups of strangers, within a five minute period that was simply a type of "get acquainted" event. In these situations, the person holding the most perceived power shows much fewer signals that they are paying attention, such as laughing or nodding. Additionally, the higher status individuals have a much higher likelihood to express their disregard through various facial expressions, as well as take over conversations, rudely interrupt or simply look completely past the other person that is speaking.
In any type of society, the social power is extremely relative. Anyone can be considered lower or higher in a given situation, and as a result the research that has been conducted still shows that this higher power effect prevails. Even though the person with more power is not paying as much attention to the lower power person in one situation, in another situation this lower status person may actually have the higher hand, then bestowing less attention to the people that are beneath them.
A major prerequisite to feeling any empathy is to simply to pay attention to the individual that is in pain. Back in 2008, a number of social psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Amsterdam, studied several pairs of strangers that were telling each other about the difficulties that they had encountered throughout life, such as a death or divorce. This research showed that the actual differential was expressed by the downplaying of the person with less power that was suffering. The more power that an individual had, resulted in them being much less compassionate in regards to the hardships that were faced by the person in the less powerful individual.
Michael Kraus is the assistant professor for psychology for the popular University of Illinois and Dacher Keltner a Berkeley professor of psychology, has completed a good deal of research on the subject of social power in regards to the deficit of attention.
It is suggested by Mr. Keltner that in many general situations a person focuses on those that they value the most. While those that are rich have the ability to hire any amount of help, the individuals that have very few actual material assets find that they are in more of a position to actually value all of their social assets, such as the neighbor that is willing to watch a child after school. This financial difference winds up creating the complete behavioral difference, as well. Those that are poorer are much better in tune to the interpersonal relations, while those that are more powerful do not have to be, simply due to the fact that they have power and money.
The research completed by Mr. Keltner has found that those who are poor, when compared with those that are rich, have a very keenly attuned attention to interpersonal relations in all different directions, which in general states that those having the most amount of power in this society, seems to pay a significant amount less attention to anyone that has the least amount of power. High status individuals do pay attention to those that hold an equal rank, but not to the standards for those that are of a lower status do.
These facts have had very significant implications for government policy, as well as societal behavior. The ability to tune into the feelings and needs of other people is an important prerequisite to feeling empathy, which when felt may actually lead to concern, understanding and in some cases action that is compassionate in nature.
In the world of politics, the ability to readily dismiss those inconvenient individuals can actually extend to actually dismissing the inconvenient truths that are present about them. Currently there is an insistence of a number of House Republicans that are holding seats in Congress to cut the financing for those that rely on food stamps as well as the impending Obamacare that would then allow all patients, even those with a pre-existing condition, to get and pay for insurance coverage, may actually stem in some part due to the existing empathy gap. There are a number of political scientists that have noted that gerrymandering and redistricting have now led to the actual creation of many more districts that are safe, where the elected officials do not have to even encounter the voters from other parties, or even think about empathizing with their situation.
The fact is that social distance allows people to give their focus to the small differences that are present between various groups and then to put a very negative spin on the actions of others, and a very positive spin on their own.
These truths are also found in areas with a varied ethnic population. During recent research it was found that where there were a variety of ethnic groups present, there was conflict and the groups viewed each other through negative stereotypes, while those that had a close friend of a different ethnicity did not exhibit any prejudice.
The gap that is present in between those that are rich and the remainder of the population has become increasingly large. The income inequality around the country is currently at its very highest level for over an entire century. While the actual financial inequities are worrisome, there is also the fact that those in a position of power cannot see themselves in the place of a person that has less advantages. The fact is that without the gap in economics, it may not be possible to breach until the gap that is present in empathy is addressed.
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