The new sociopathy

So, this article has been making the rounds (why it’s in the Fashion and Style section? Who knows):

“ARE the upper classes really indifferent to the hopes, fears and miseries of ordinary folk? Or is it that they just don’t understand their less privileged peers?

According to a paper by three psychological researchers — Michael W. Kraus, at the University of California, San Francisco; Stéphane Côté, at the University of Toronto; and Dacher Keltner, the University of California, Berkeley — members of the upper class are less adept at reading emotions. (…)

In the first experiment, participants were asked to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions were being expressed. The more upper class the judges, the less able they were to accurately identify emotions in others.

In another experiment, upper-class participants had a harder time reading the emotions of strangers during simulated job interviews.

In the third one — an interesting twist of an experiment — people of greater socioeconomic status were asked to compare themselves to the wealthiest, most powerful Americans, thus diminishing their own relative stature. When asked to identify emotions by looking at 36 sets of emoting eyes, they did markedly better than their upper-class peers.

Here’s why:

Earlier studies have suggested that those in the lower classes, unable to simply hire others, rely more on neighbors or relatives for things like a ride to work or child care. As a result, the authors propose, they have to develop more effective social skills — ones that will engender good will.”

The Guardian has a slight variation on that theme:

“So Messrs Maude, Hunt and Willetts think “it’s startling that the richest third of donors in Britain give less, as a proportion of their income, to charity than the poorest third.” I suppose the Tory doyens have been a bit busy of late to be browsing the current psychology journals, but had they done so, they might not have been quite so surprised.

Michael W Kraus, of the University of California, San Francisco, is one of a number of social psychologists who have recently been busy demonstrating that lower socioeconomic status (SES) is intricately linked to all sorts of prosocial behaviours. Everything else equal, the less wealth, education and employment status we have, the more charitable, generous, trusting and helpful we appear to become. In interactions with strangers, poorer people are more likely to use polite, attentive, respectful gestures. (…)

Most immediately, these findings should help to persuade the three wise monkeys of the “big society” that the philanthropy of the wealthiest should never be taken for granted. If their hopes for the fabric of the nation rest to any extent upon the compassion and generosity of the most wealthy and powerful, they may have a few more startling surprises in store.”

I think there are at least two levels to distinguish here: (1) people in subordinate positions have to do more emotional labor than people in positions of power; (2) let’s bring back the Protestant Ethic and see how it works in Nasty Times.

First the emotional labor part (see Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart for the basics). The question of empathy (or lack thereof) in relation to social class is underpinned by the unequal distribution of attention, who gets it and who gives it, something explored by Charles Derber’s The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life. Starting from a general standpoint, Derber states that (all quotes are cited with Kindle edition location):

“Attention plays a role in social interaction as does money in the economy: people hunger for it and suffer terribly from its deprivation; many compete subtly but fiercely to get it; and it is one of the social badges of prestige and success.”

So, there is an attention hierarchy where people in dominant positions, by gender or class, are put in the position of attention-getter while people in subordinate positions are often attention-givers. This is true in informal as well as formal interactions. So, if one is in the position of having to give attention, then, it makes sense to develop empathic skills, knowing how to “read” those to whom attention will be given, anticipate their reactions, and attend to their emotional needs, as required by respective statuses.

Conversely, being in a dominant position has no such requirements. Therefore, such individuals have no need to develop empathic skills such as those required from attention givers.

So, far from being individual or psychological traits, the dynamics of attention-giving and attention-getting are socially-embedded in seven ways, according to Derber:

  1. the differing personality and interactional styles of those at the top and bottom of the “attention-hierarchy,”
  2. the effect of gender and social status on the ability of each participant to gain and hold attention,
  3. the kinds of competition for attention and the ways in which they were resolved,
  4. the relation between the institutional roles and power of each participant and the attention he or she received,
  5. the relative equality or inequality in the distribution of attention,
  6. factors creating extreme inequality, and
  7. the relative disposition of each participant to seek attention for himself or herself.

So, American culture values individualism and competition, which means, there is a real struggle for attention. Competing for it is seen as a legitimate way to get it. Needless to say, social media are massive attention-getting devices but they do not fundamentally alter the attention hierarchies. Think of Twitter:

  • Lots of followers, very few follows = celebrities
  • Lots of follows, very few followers = bots

Levity aside, social media platforms make the presentation of self, impression management and personal branding easier without democratization. For those who read French, some critical analysis along these lines here (via).

Leaving aside Derber’s insights on gender, I want to focus on social class and status as they pertain to the question of empathy. Generally,

“The allocation system in formal interactions is thus one of “controlled” rather than “free” initiative, determined largely by the institutional roles. Such roles can be characterized as either attention-getting or attention-giving, depending on whether the actor is expected to give or get it.


The social allocation of attention-getting and attention-giving roles among different groups largely determines who gets attention in formal interactions. Individuals who typically take on attention-getting institutional roles learn to expect and seek attention for themselves, while those most often assigned attention-giving roles assume a certain socially imposed invisibility.”

Therefore, social inequalities are also simultaneously “inequalities of face,” institutionalized in interpersonal life and in a distribution of attention mirroring the allocation of other resources. Who get attention, then, is a reflection of socially-defined worth.

At one end of the spectrum is the recipient of attention from multiple actors (butlers, waiters, therapists of various kinds, airplane stewards, etc.), at the other end of the spectrum is complete invisibility (the modern version of Upstairs / Downstairs, where low prestige work is done out of sight, in complete deprivation of attention… with the slight exception that the only attention received is tight supervision from middle category actors, such as foremen or household managers whereas individuals in dominant position receive their attention in terms of deference). Attention and power go hand in hand.

I should note though, that the one glaring exception to this general state of affairs we witnessed in 2010 was the case of the Chilean miners. All of a sudden, and as a result of a tragedy that propelled this usually – literally – invisible category to the spotlight, these miners received the kind of attention usually showered upon social classes higher than them. But this happened through two mechanisms: (1) the evacuation of any serious discussion of how / why, in the 21st century, extraction still basically operates as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries, and (2) the reformulation of this case into a heroism story.

Otherwise,, when the poor and disadvantaged receive attention, it is through welfare agencies and other agencies of social control where attention is degrading, humiliating and involves abdicating one’s dignity and agency.

In addition, in the context of increasing inequalities, empathy from the wealthy to the poor is even less likely as the wealthy have detached their living conditions practically completely not just from the poor but also from the middle class, something illustrated with multiple examples in Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich. So, the denizens of Richistan do not just fly first class, they use private jets.

They live lives more and more segregated from any other social classes whose labor they depend upon but do not see, thanks to the armies of attention-givers they hire (from household managers to nannies) to manage the invisible workers.

The Richistanis bypass most social institutions that mere mortals use. They have their own systems for education, transportation, leisure, sociability (with their specific enclaves, such as Switzerland), etc. Of course, they enjoy political and economic clout.

This almost-complete segregation, solidified by the massive enrichment of the already rich, contributes to explaining a lack of empathy.

The second aspect I mentioned above is the zombie-like resurgence of the Protestant ethic. The lack of empathy is not just of product of structural conditions (increased inequalities). The dominant ideology, a modern version of Max Weber’s protestant ethic, holds that one’s standing in life is a reflection of one’s moral worth. In this view, the wealthy all got so through hard work and thrift. The poor are so because of their own individual or “cultural” (read: racial) failings and shortcomings, such as lack of work ethic, lack of deferred gratification, wrong moral decisions (early pregnancies), etc. Success and failures are available to all, the responsible and wise individuals succeed while the irresponsible and careless fail. Why should we care about them?

The theme of individual responsibility is also a zombie theme when it comes to public policy, as Denis Colombi demonstrates in a post on the latest French anti-drug campaign where drug consumption (or refraining from doing so) is only a matter of “when there’s a will, there’s a way” or personal challenge. As Colombi notes, no sociological imagination there: individual biography is just that. No social context, no social structure, just an individual on an even playing-field, making decisions freely.

So, when increasing inequalities, social segregation and a puritan dominant ideology are put together, you end up with two things that relate to the lack of empathy:

1. A complete incomprehension of how the poor live, hence the story of a columnist pretending to want to know how one lives on food stamps and blowing a month’s worth in one day and treating the whole thing like a big joke.

2. Punitive social policies, because the poor are to be treated as morally deficient and incapable of being responsible and self-sufficient, hence this:

“Centuries ago, when ordinary men and women first began to dream of political suffrage, a radical theory surfaced whereby people without property or assets had as much right to a living as anybody else. Thomas Paine wrote in 1795 that every citizen should expect a minimum income as compensation for the “loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.” That notion has this week been utterly abandoned by the British administration.

Tomorrow, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will announce a new “contract” with the poor. Those receiving the miniscule and dwindling stipend that the government grants anyone without means to support themselves in these straitened times may be required to toil for the state, for free, or face being shoved off benefits.

This isn’t just a Tory scheme. James Purnell, who tried to pull the same trick under Labour in 2009, has spoken of a “covert consensus” whereby, with true Vietnam war logic, it has become necessary to destroy the Welfare State in order to save it.

As strategies for tackling poverty go it’s not subtle. In fact, it’s roughly equivalent to a quack doctor plastering a typhoid sufferer with leeches or cutting a hole in a patient’s head to cure a migraine. This trepanation of the welfare system is supposed to “get Britain working” by returning the poor to the “habit” of nine to five labour — alongside savage cuts to housing benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance that will apparently “incentivise” them towards work that isn’t there.

It’s the Victorian aversion-therapy theory of poverty. Iain Duncan Smith, along with a sizeable chunk of the press, seems to have convinced himself that forcing low-paid or unpaid citizens to work for nothing or face homelessness and starvation will somehow snap them out of their beastly little “habit” of not having any money. It’s a reimagining of poverty as a social disease that can be cured with shock treatment, rather than the inevitable result of years of profit-driven policymaking that have systematically neglected the needy and vulnerable.”

This ties into what I have called nasty times, our current times, marked by cruelty towards the vulnerable who are not only social punished for the current economic conditions, but also publicly blamed for the crisis. After all, if one’s wealth is a reflection of one’s moral worth, then, surely, the wealthy cannot be blamed for the financial collapse. It has to be the fault of irresponsible people. That is what the denizens of Richistan have explained to Chrystia Freeland.

“Though typically more guarded in their choice of words, many American plutocrats suggest, as Khodorkovsky did, that the trials faced by the working and middle classes are generally their own fault. When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment-bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford. One of America’s top hedge-fund managers made a near-identical case to me—though this time the offenders were his in-laws and their subprime mortgage. And a private-equity baron who divides his time between New York and Palm Beach pinned blame for the collapse on a favorite golf caddy in Arizona, who had bought three condos as investment properties at the height of the bubble.”

As always, it is nice when the mainstream media catches up with stuff that sociology has been studying for quite some time. In the linked piece, Freeland discovers The Transnational Capitalist Class as global elite… better late than never.

The significant point, relating to empathy again, is that as the TCC emerged and uprooted itself from its national ties, it also meant a disconnection from the people who are still tied to the nation-state (the poor and the working class, mainly). See, for example, French publicist Jacques Séguéla arguing with a straight face, at the occasion of an international survey revealing the French to be the least optimistic about economic prospects in 2011, that the Chinese make less than 10% of the French minimum wage, and yet are happy.

Never mind that the survey does not deal with happiness but with what people think economic prospects are for 2011:

The survey shows the French and the British to be the most pessimistic. Is that really surprising considering that both countries have just come out of massive social movements in protest (in vain) against various austerity measures?

How do I conclude all this? I think what I was trying to do was to add some layers to the idea that the wealthy have less empathy than the not-so-privileged. I see ideological, structural and institutional factors to this, rather than a simplistic one-dimensional analysis.

I also think that, as we reach the end of a 30-year period of triumphant neoliberalism, one should note the rise of a new sociopathy, from the top of the social ladder towards the middle and the bottom, both nationwide and globally. By sociopathy, I mean social structurally and ideologically-produced lack of concern for the less fortunate, accompanied by a self-serving narrative of meritocracy that the wealthy attribute to themselves to explain their success, rather than political clout, favorable policies and overall making the system work for them.

And overall, an inability and unwillingness to see how the other half lives.

As a result of all this, it is all the easier to inflict social and economic pain on the bottom 90% while blaming them at the same time.