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Money Degrades Our Ability to Empathize

New research finds that offering people money makes them less likely to correctly infer another person’s emotional state.
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Given the tone-deaf comments a wealthy political figure recently made while addressing some equally affluent donors, you’d almost think money makes a person less able to relate to the feelings of others.

And, according to newly published research, you’d be absolutely right.

“Financial incentives lead individuals to see themselves as less interdependent with others, and consequently render them less able to accurately infer what others are feeling,” report psychologists Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich.

Specifically, they found people judged the emotional states of others less accurately when they were offered a monetary reward for a correct response. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they describe two experiments that produced these counterintuitive results.

The first featured 49 students from the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were assigned to watch two videos of individuals discussing something they had recently experienced, and then to infer what those people were feeling.

Half were told that if they answered accurately, they would receive $100 at the end of the academic quarter. The other half were told they would “earn points in a game,” which could ultimately result in a financial prize.

Participants who were directly offered the cash incentive were less accurate in their assessments than those who were playing for points. In other words, they were less likely to list emotions that matched those which the people in the videos reported experiencing.

A second experiment, featuring 123 students, was set up similarly, except the financial incentive (or lack thereof) was made more concrete. Half were told the participants who most accurately judged the subjects’ emotions would receive a $40 gift card. The others were offered no incentive of any kind.

Once again, “when we offered individuals a monetary reward for accurately inferring others’ emotions, their ability to make accurate inferences decreased, relative to individuals who were not offered any monetary reward,” the researchers write.

“These findings are particularly compelling given that, in both studies, it (literally) paid to be empathically accurate,” Ma-Kellams and Blascovich note. “Despite the fact that correctly inferring the emotional states of others would have resulted in financial gain, individuals who focused on the monetary payoff performed worse relative to those who did not.”

These results suggest that the thought of making money causes people to be "more focused on self-related concerns, and less able to empathically infer others' feelings,” they write.

The researchers note that this may help explain the casually amoral attitudes of a Bernie Madoff. But perhaps captains of industry who lay off workers without a second thought provide a more common example of this disturbing dynamic. “How could he do such a thing?” becomes less of a puzzle if, as this research suggests, the thought of financial reward makes one less empathetic.