According to a study published earlier this month in Psychological Science, the more money and status people have, the less they give a damn about others. Researchers from New York University wanted to get a better understanding of how social class relates to motivational relevance, or "the degree to which others are seen as potentially rewarding, threatening, or otherwise worth paying attention to." After a series of experiments, they found that people who reported being in a higher social class involuntarily paid less attention to others.
In the first study, psychologists asked 71 New Yorkers to walk a block wearing Google Glass under the pretense of testing out the wearable tech. Afterward, participants filled out a survey and reported, among other things, what social class they fell into: poor, working class, middle class, upper-middle class, or upper class. Ultimately, researchers found, "while higher- and lower-class participants did not differ in their total number of social gazes—perhaps because navigating the street required all participants, regardless of class, to monitor the location of other people—higher-class participants' gazes were reliably shorter."
Two follow-up studies came to the same conclusion. In one, participants looked at a series of street scenes taken from Google Street View; their behavior was monitored on an eye-tracking system in a laboratory setting. Once again, the results found those in higher social classes spent "significantly less time looking at people."
In a third online study, researchers honed in on faces and their "capacity to rapidly and spontaneously summon visual attention." Participants, the final sample totaling 393, were shown alternating pairs of images, each containing one face and five objects, such as a fruit or a houseplant. They were then asked to note if the images were identical or not. Researchers found that higher-class people were slower to notice face changes than lower-class participants.
One explanation for the results, the authors suggest, is a difference in social orientation and cognitive style. Working-class people tend to be more interdependent and "exhibit a more holistic cognitive style," they write. Alternatively, "members of the middle class tend to have an independent self-concept and analytic cognitive style."
Pia Dietze is a PhD student at New York University and lead author of the study. She tells Broadly that just because her research indicates wealthy people may be unconsciously snooty doesn't necessarily mean they have to be. "Our studies have shown that the observed attentional effects seem to be quite pervasive and spontaneous," she says. "That does not mean that they are unchangeable (or genetic), but we think that they have been learned over time. Awareness of cultural differences might be a good starting point, but it is definitely just a small step."
On the other hand, there's no guarantee the rich will suddenly start paying us commoners more attention just because the research now puts them on notice. "Similarly, gender differences are pervasive and culturally determined," Dietze continues. "For example, studies showing that men interrupt women more frequently (than the other way around) are certainly a great empirical step; however, change does not necessarily follow from this awareness."
Nonetheless, it's important to understand the impact of social class behavioral differences because, Dietze says, "the more we know … the better we can address widespread societal issues, such as differences in empathy between the rich and the poor, first-generation student's higher college dropout rates, and ultimately social mobility in the US."