Level of empathy for misfortunate based in social status

Brian Lucas

People with strong egalitarian values believe all groups in society should be equal. Alternatively, anti-egalitarians believe that some social groups should be at the top of society and others should be at the bottom.

Which group – egalitarians or anti-egalitarians – would express more empathy toward the misfortunes of others, for instance, someone whose work benefits were cut or whose house was robbed?

According to new research published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Brian Lucas, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the ILR School, and Nour Kteily of Northwestern University, the level of empathy egalitarians and anti-egalitarians express toward others’ misfortunes depends on whether that other person holds a high- or low-ranking position in society.

The research included more than 3,000 people responding to eight surveys. In one study, participants read a scenario about John, who works at a manufacturing company. The scenario described that John’s work benefits were recently reduced and explained the negative impact this would have on John and his family.

In one condition, John was described as one of the organization’s wealthy executives and in another condition John was described one of the organization’s working-class factory workers.

The researchers found that egalitarians expressed more empathy for John than anti-egalitarians when John was described as a factory worker. But egalitarians expressed less empathy for John than anti-egalitarians when John was described as an executive.

“Previous research has mostly found that, on average, egalitarians are more empathetic than anti-egalitarians. Our research comes in and says that context matters. It’s not that egalitarians and anti-egalitarians are inherently capable or incapable of expressing empathy, but that they are more or less motivated to express empathy based on who they are asked to empathize with,” Lucas said.

The research also demonstrates the role empathy plays in people’s reactions to policy decisions that influence high- and low-ranking members of society.

For instance, one study looked at support for college legacy admissions policies, which tend to help those at the top of society, and support for affirmative action policies, which tend to help those at the bottom of society. Participants first read about a college applicant who qualified for either a legacy admissions program or an affirmative-action program. Next, they read that the applied-to college ended its admissions program that would have helped the student gain admission.

The researchers found that egalitarians, compared to anti-egalitarians, felt less empathy for the applicant who lost the opportunity of benefitting from a legacy admissions program, and this predicted participants’ lower support for legacy admissions policies.

The opposite result was found for anti-egalitarians. Compared to egalitarians, anti-egalitarians felt less empathy for the applicant who lost the opportunity to benefit from an affirmative action program, and this predicted participants’ lower support for affirmative action policies. The empathy people feel for those affected by a given policy is an important predictor of whether people will support that policy.

Lucas grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the town of Campbell, in New York state’s Southern Tier, and has spent the past few years working with business leaders at the Kellogg School of Management and the Booth School of Business. He said it is likely that combination of experiences with workers at the top and the bottom of their organizations that drew his interest to hierarchy.

“The research sheds light on how people’s core beliefs, in this case beliefs about hierarchy, can influence their judgments and attitudes about others and important social issues,” Lucas said.

Mary Catt is assistant director of communications at the ILR School.

Media Contact

Lindsey Knewstub