Higher-class individuals are worse at reading emotions and assuming the perspectives of others, study finds (PsyPost)

Eric W. Dolan – September 4, 2020

New research provides evidence that people from higher social classes are worse at understanding the minds of others compared to those from lower social classes. The study has been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“My co-author and I set out to examine a question that we deemed important given the trend of rising economic inequality in American society today: How does access to resources (e.g., money, education) influence the way we process information about other human beings?” said study author Pia Dietze, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine.

“We tried to answer this question by examining two essential components within the human repertoire to understand each other’s minds: the way in which we read emotional states from other people’s faces and how inclined we are to take the visual perspective of another person.”

For their study, the researchers recruited 300 U.S. individuals from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and another 452 U.S. individuals from the Prolific Academic platform. The participants completed a test of cognitive empathy called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which assesses the ability to recognize or infer someone else’s state of mind from looking only at their eyes and surrounding areas.

The researchers also had 138 undergraduates at New York University complete a test of visual perspective-taking known as the Director Task, in which they were required to move objects on a computer screen based on the perspective of a virtual avatar.

The researchers found that lower-class people tended to perform better on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and Director Task than their higher-class counterparts.

“We find that individuals from lower social class backgrounds are better at identifying emotions from other people’s faces and are more likely to spontaneously take another person’s visual perspective. This is in line with a large body of work documenting a tendency for lower-class people to be more socially attuned to others. In addition, our research shows that this can happen at a very basic level; within seconds or milliseconds of encountering a new face or person,” Dietze told PsyPost.

But like all research, the new study includes some limitations.

“This research is based on correlational data. As such, we need to see this research as part of a larger body work to answer the question of causality. However, the insights gained from our study allows us to speculate about how and why we think these tendencies develop,” Dietze explained.

“We theorize that social class can influence social information processing (i.e., the processing of information about other people) at such a basic level because social classes can be conceptualized as a form of culture. As such, social class cultures (like other forms of culture, for example, national cultures), have a pervasive psychological influence that impact many aspects of life, at times even at spontaneous levels.”

The study, “Social Class Predicts Emotion Perception and Perspective-Taking Performance in Adults“, was authored by Pia Dietze and Eric D. Knowles.

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