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That Peasant? I Didn’t Even Notice Him

New research finds social class influences how closely we pay attention to other people.

By Tom Jacobs


Snob à L’Exposition

, by Victor Eugène Géruzez. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ever get the feeling that wealthy, powerful people are looking down on you?

Well, that’s not quite right. According to newly published research, they’re barely looking at you at all.

A study that utilized high-tech eye-tracking techniques, including Google Glass, reports members of the upper class pay less attention to other human beings than those further down the socioeconomic food chain.

Essentially, we hold our gaze on someone if we think they could play a meaningful role in our lives — a person who has “potential to advance or thwart the perceiver’s goals,” write New York University psychologists Pia Dietze and Eric Knowles. For the well-to-do, that apparently excludes much of humanity.

“Our findings make a compelling case that social classes differ in their judgments of other people’s significance,” they write in the journal Psychological Science.

It’s not that they can’t empathize with people who have to worry about money; it’s just that they don’t pay much attention to us.

The researchers describe four experiments, the first of which featured 61 pedestrians approached at two locations in New York City. They were asked to participate in “a test of Google Glass — an electronic device that positions a small video camera and head-up display near the wearer’s right eye. Participants were asked to walk approximately one block while the Glass recorded video from their perspective.”

Afterwards, participants filled out a questionnaire in which they rated their social class on a scale of one (poor) to five (upper class), and their “perceived socioeconomic standing” from one (bottom rung) to 10 (top). Six independent coders then looked at the video and analyzed their glances toward other people.

“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,” the researchers report.

The next two studies featured 76 and 82 participants, respectively, all NYU undergraduates. They “were seated at a desk containing a computer monitor and an EyeLink 1000 eye-tracking system.”

Participants placed their heads on a chin rest and viewed “a series of street scenes” taken from Google Street View. These included “a diverse set of people (construction workers, business people, and homeless people) and things (cars, trees, and stores).”

The researchers measured “visual dwell time” — the total amount of time (measured in milliseconds) that one looked at a particular person or object. They found that, in both studies, “Compared with their lower-class counterparts, higher-class participants spent significantly less time looking at people.”

Dietze and Knowles note that this process is spontaneous, and thus not a conscious choice. So it’s not as damning as it may initially appear. Indeed, they argue that their discovery could exonerate members of the upper class from one common charge: The fact they do a poorer job of judging others’ emotions “may have as much to do with attentional neglect as it does with reduced empathetic ability.”

So it’s not that they can’t empathize with people who have to worry about money; it’s just that they don’t pay much attention to us. That’s better, right?