You walk into a room and see a jar of your favorite candy, M&M’S. It’s an ideal situation after a tough day at the office. The only problem? The jar’s label reads, “For Children Only!” If you take from the jar, you’re stealing from little kids. However, nobody else is around, so you could easily swipe a handful. Do you do it?
According to UC Berkeley professor Paul Piff, your level of wealth will influence your answer to this dilemma. Piff ran an experiment, observing participants as they took candy designated for children only. High-income participants took two times as much candy as low-income participants. Piff believes a concerning drop in empathy among the wealthy is to blame for the experiment participants’ candy theft. As he explains:
We’ve been finding across dozens of studies and thousands of participants across this country that as a person’s level of wealth increases, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down. And their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases.
According to research from Businessolver, 87% of CEOs believe a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy, yet 92% of employees believe their workplace undervalues empathy. Without empathy, human connection in a business suffers. This creates a breeding ground for misunderstandings between business leaders, coworkers, clients, customers, and the public. There’s no way for a business to properly function (or profit) when understanding is lacking at every level.
The data shows the cards are stacked against you when it comes to wealth-building and empathy. Luckily, empathy is possible to build and maintain. All it requires is the desire to be an empathetic leader, dedication to the practice of empathy-building habits, and being intentional about the people you surround yourself with.
How Do Wealth and Power Change the Brain?
Empathy is the ability to see the world as others see it. It allows us to feel compassion for the suffering of others. It also makes it possible to anticipate the needs of customers, employees, and connections in our lives.
Empathy occurs through a neural process in the brain called mirroring. Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi, professor of neuroscience at McMaster University, performed an experiment measuring how power impacts this neural process. Obhi instructed a portion of experiment participants to reflect on a time when they had power over another person. Others reflected on a time when another person had power over them.
Obhi found that brain scans of those who reflected on a time when they had power over another person showed fewer signs of mirroring than their less powerful counterparts. This experiment demonstrated how power inhibits the neural processes in the brain that most impact empathy.
Why Empathy Drops as Wealth Grows
When you build wealth and influence, many things in life can shift. Your routines, where you live, who you interact with, and where you work are all likely different than they were before you achieved your success. The tough part is determining which of these things causes the decrease in empathy. Listed below are a few possible things driving that change.
Independence Allows for Less Consideration of Others
Daisy Grewel of Scientific American writes, “Wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused.”
Most of us are well-practiced in trying to understand the emotions and motivations of those around us. Much of communication happens outside of the simple exchange of words. In fact, behavioral psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s theory of communication states that our spoken words convey just 7% of feelings and attitudes.
To understand how a person is truly feeling, you must pay attention to their tone of voice and facial expressions. Without practice, it’s easy to only pay attention to the words you hear. Most of us get very good at this because we need to understand the people we rely on. For example, before asking for a raise, a person would want to get a feel for their boss’s mood and state of mind.
Yet, as a person’s resources grow, they often can pay for things that would’ve previously been negotiated for. Employees and subordinates of wealthy and successful people will often do as they’re asked regardless of their emotional state. As a result, people with the greatest amount of power aren’t required to practice empathy in their day-to-day conversations to get what they need as much. When empathetic thinking isn’t required to get by, many people let their ability to empathize atrophy.
Awareness of Suffering Is Crucial for Perspective
As wealth increases, it’s common to become increasingly removed from the experiences of those with fewer privileges. Many upper-class Americans have access to safer neighborhoods, top-tier schools, social support networks, and better healthcare. For example, according to research from The Standford Center for Educational Policy Analysis, 26% of wealthy Americans send their children to public school, compared to 7% of middle-class Americans, and 4% of lower-class Americans.
The CDC reports that the prevalence of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and many other diseases drops tremendously as a person’s income bracket increases. While no one can completely avoid suffering, it is often possible to decrease the frequency and intensity of exposure to it.
In addition to his studies on how wealth affects the amount of candy you’ll take from a jar, Paul Piff also studied how awareness of poverty increases the likelihood of a person offering help to a stranger. In his research, he initially found that high-income people were less likely to offer help to a stranger than low-income people. However, these results changed after the experiment participants watched a video on childhood poverty.
Immediately after watching the video, the likelihood of helping a stranger was the same for people of all income levels, showing that awareness of suffering is an essential piece of being a compassionate person.
These findings show how a person’s compassion for others may decrease when they become more removed from poverty, disease, danger, and many other types of suffering.
Why People Need Empathy and Compassion
Business Success Depends on Empathy
Empathy plays a critical role in a business’s ability to create good products, attract and retain talented employees, and keep a strong reputation.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes empathy plays a major role in business success. But why is empathy important? “Empathy makes you a better innovator. If I look at the most successful products we [at Microsoft] have created, it comes with that ability to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers,” she illustrates.
According to the Harvard Business Review, companies ranking in the top ten for empathy generate 50% more revenue than those ranking in the bottom ten. They also increase in value at more than twice the rate of the least empathetic companies.
Great Products Require a Connection to Customers
Harvard Business School professor, author, and champion of the “Jobs-to-Be-Done” framework, Clayton Christensen, proved that to make good products, you have to understand customers. He described his experience researching the motivations driving McDonald’s customers to buy milkshakes.
While McDonald’s assumed customers liked their milkshakes because of the flavor or texture, Christensen discovered it was because milkshakes make a convenient snack during a long morning commute.
Christensen’s research allowed him to gain more perspective and empathy. With that new perspective, McDonald’s better met their customers’ needs.
Teams Succeed When Built With Empathy
There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for finding and keeping good employees. Every employee has unique strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Employers must have the ability to learn a new personality and adjust to meet that new team member’s needs. Without empathy, teams can become disjointed as bosses don’t understand their workers and workers don’t feel supported.
Good Reputations Are Built by Compassionate Leaders
In 2021, Better.com showed how an uncompassionate boss can ruin a brand’s reputation. During a Zoom call, CEO Vishal Garg abruptly informed 900 employees they were being let go. He then accused the employees of “stealing from customers and colleagues” by being unproductive at work. Many employees felt stunned by the sudden news and insensitive delivery method.
Following Better.com’s layoffs, the company took a major hit in public perception. Negative reviews of the company began flooding in and news articles circulated about the harsh CEO’s behavior.
While lay-offs are often necessary, the company could have avoided the hit to its public image if Garg had employed more empathy during the situation.
Connection Is Critical For Mental and Physical Health
Positive psychology researchers Ed Diener and Martin Seligman found meaningful connections improve health and speed up recovery from disease.
Empathy bridges the divide between being separate individuals with different backgrounds, feelings, and perspectives.PSYCHOTHERAPIST Cindy Sigal, AMFT
Empathy and concern for the well-being of others also have a significant impact on mental health. One 2021 study found that working to make others happy brings more personal well-being than working to make yourself happy. This is consistent with other studies that have found volunteer work can decrease symptoms of depression.
Success Comes With an Ethical Responsibility to Give Back
CEO of the supermarket chain, H-E-B, Charles Butt, has a net worth of $10 billion. He believes his success gives him an ethical responsibility to help others, a belief passed down to him by his parents. “My parents’ mantra was, ‘With privilege—whether inherited or earned—comes responsibility,’” he says.
When people worldwide were hit by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Butt said, “Many businesses and individuals have significant resources and power, and a time of national crisis is the time for both to be put toward our common goals . . . Value and invest in people and your communities. Be generous. Don’t wait until you’re asked. Do all you can!”
Butt exemplifies the idea that with great power comes great responsibility, which is a belief shared by people across cultures and time periods. While the idea was popularized in the modern era by Spiderman, many leaders throughout history have spoken about the responsibility that comes with power.
Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all publicly shared this sentiment in their writing or speeches. You can find this idea in the Bible, the teachings of Muhammed, and the story of Damocles from the first century B.C.
Can You Prevent the Loss of Empathy?
Yes, you can maintain your empathy while your wealth grows. However, it won’t happen without intentional effort.
The first step is to be sure your social circle includes many people who are different from you. If the majority of your closest friends, coworkers, and neighbors live a similar lifestyle to your own, make a concerted effort to connect with new types of people.
Volunteering is a great way to build relationships with people outside your current social circles. Look into tutoring at a public school or refugee center, ask where you can help at a homeless shelter, or visit a senior center.
Beyond volunteering, look for opportunities to participate in community organizations and events. Join a club, attend church, or go to a meet-up group to interact with a more diverse range of people than you typically find in your life.
The next step in maintaining empathy is avoiding “yes men.” No matter how successful you become, keep people around who aren’t afraid to point out your mistakes and blind spots. Without honest feedback, it’s easy to develop overconfidence in your ideas and worldview.
Finally, it’s important to keep people around who regularly practice compassion and empathy. According to psychology professor, Jamil Zaki, people who believe the world is a charitable place are more likely to give greater amounts in their charitable contributions.
“We find that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions but also the spirit underlying them,” Zaki explained.
Because empathy is contagious, it’s essential to carefully craft your community to include charitable and compassionate people. These people will help you direct your thoughts toward others’ needs, and you’ll be able to keep your capacity for empathy strong.