Attention Lurking in the News, #5: Why the Rich “Just Care Less”

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Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s 10/6/2013 opinion piece in the New York Times brings empathy—a.k.a. caring attention to others—on the front burner of people’s befuddlement about the rich.  Goleman’s essay, “Rich People Just Care Less,” zeroes in on what he calls “the micropolitics of interpersonal attention,” in order to understand why rich and powerful people don’t care much about the less fortunate.  Their attention deficit, he warns, threatens the nation’s public policy and support for social programs.

It’s bigger than that, I fear.  The future our democracy is as stake, as wealth and power play ever larger roles in winning elections.  But what kind of power are we really talking about?  Something deeper is going on.

Psychologists have been studying social power and the limited empathy of those with greater means.  This research seems to underline the obvious—that we tend to focus on the people we value the most.  Folks with fewer resources have more empathy because they value their neighbors and community more.  People of limited means need other people more because, unlike the rich, they cannot always hire others to tend their children, drive them about, look after their aging relatives, and so on.  Rich and powerful people are also prone to assume they are more deserving than the powerless, as if wealth bestows virtue and poverty merits disrespect.

The bias of the rich has led to the defunding of food stamps and the refusal by many states to implement Obamacare.  [Ran out of food?  You must have wasted your stamps on junk food.  Have a pre-existing condition?  Tough luck: insurance companies have to make a profit.  Can’t afford their rates?  Suck it up, or get a better job.]  Goleman says he’s more worried about the empathy gap between rich and poor than the income gap, which happens to be greater now than in the past century.

There’s a glimmer of hope, though, in research showing that individuals with friends in disrespected or hostile ethnic groups feel little or no prejudice even when living in heavily prejudiced communities.  But for this to occur there has to be “intergroup contact.”  How, we might ask, can the 99% intermingle with the 1% with ever more isolated gated communities and exclusivity?

Here’s a personal example of the complexity, and perhaps the simplicity, of how much this lack of empathy boils down to where we put our attention.

As a young woman working in a non-profit organization, I had a similarly employed friend who got the chance to administer an arts-related nonprofit in another city.  There she met a rich, elderly patron of the arts who had terminal cancer and no children.  My friend was poised, pretty, and intelligent.  She was not attracted to this man, but was oddly intrigued that he would pressure her to marry him so she would inherit his wealth.  He could have willed it to her without marriage, but he was probably trying to avoid the risk that she would be sued by his relatives.  Plus he wanted her to bear his name and carry out some of his philanthropic goals.  The last I spoke with her she had no illusions of love for this man, and feared that her life would never be the same if she accepted his offer.  Still, she looked me in the eye, nodded, and said the man claimed to be offering her more power and influence than she would ever have on her present career path.

A few months passed.  As Christmas approached, I received a gold embossed envelope containing a card with an elegant etching of a stately mansion.  Inside was a cool “Seasons Greetings,” signed with my friend’s first name.  No personal message.  The embossed address did not include her married name.  So I sent her a Metropolitan Museum of Art Christmas card using that address and her former name—proceeded by “Ms.”  I handwrote my warm wishes and the hope that she’d keep in touch. I never heard from her again.

Part of me understood that she now lived far away, and how could she continue to confide in me when her new life was so different and far more glamorous than mine?  The exchange of attention between us would no longer be equal.   But another part of me felt bereft, that she had done something inhumane.

Recently I remembered the end of this friendship as I was discussing Goleman’s essay with a colleague in the clergy. For some reason it made him think of a domestic worker who’d sought his advice on a terrible dilemma.  She was a maid whose long-time employer had died, leaving her $33 million in gratitude for her years of faithful service.  Instantly the woman’s life became a nightmare of lawyers—hired by relatives of the deceased who’d never bothered to visit while she was alive—accusing her of coercion and extortion.  Defending her innocence would require years of costly legal battles that could consume most of her inheritance.  My colleague’s Solomonic advice: keep one million and sign away all the rest. He told her she’d have a comfortable life and avoid some ugly battles that could ruin it.

Regarding my former friend, the clergyman asked me to imagine what her life was like marrying a rich man soon to die—moving into a palatial home, surrounded by servants she did not know how to supervise, with no friends to advise her and no background in that lifestyle.  After his death envious people would whisper behind her back, if not openly treating her like a gold-digger.  “I think she was lonely and wanted to reach out to you, but was also ashamed,” he said.  The odds were excellent, he added, that the dead man’s relatives would sue, or at the very least accuse her of taking advantage of him.

“So where did she put her attention?” I asked. “Was she in denial that she’d entered that kind of life for the sake of power and influence? Did she allow herself to consider my feelings?”

“Oh,” he replied, “the rich try very hard to present a clear, smiling face to the world.  But I know that in private, many of them are crying,” he said. “That’s probably why you never heard from her.”

More about caring less in my next post.