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Are the poor better at reading emotions?

Nov. 23, 2010
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Peo­ple of low so­ci­o­ec­on­om­ic sta­tus are bet­ter at read­ing oth­ers’ emo­tions than are up­per-class folk, a new study finds, yet the ef­fect can be un­done by simply chang­ing peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of their own sta­tus. 

Re­search­ers spec­u­late that the pat­tern oc­curs be­cause the poor rely more on friends than on mon­ey to ful­fill day-to-day needs. For ex­am­ple, some­one who can’t af­ford day care for their chil­dren might have to ask neigh­bors or rel­a­tives to baby-sit.

“It’s all about the so­cial con­text... the spe­cif­ic chal­lenges the per­son faces. If you can shift the con­text even tem­po­rar­ily, so­cial class dif­fer­ences in any num­ber of be­hav­iors can be elim­i­nat­ed,” said Mi­chael W. Kraus of the Uni­vers­ity of California-San Fran­cis­co, one of the re­search­ers.

The stu­dy, by Kraus and two oth­er sci­en­tists, ap­peared on­line Oct. 25 in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The group con­ducted three ex­pe­ri­ments. One used vol­un­teers who worked at a uni­vers­ity. Some had grad­u­at­ed from col­lege and oth­ers had not; re­search­ers used educa­t­ional lev­el as an in­di­ca­tor of so­cial class, since the two are strongly cor­re­lat­ed in popula­t­ion stud­ies. The vol­un­teers took a test of emo­tion per­cep­tion, in which they were asked to look at pic­tures of faces and in­di­cate which emo­tions each face was dis­play­ing. Better-educated peo­ple per­formed worse than peo­ple with less educa­t­ion, Kraus and col­leagues said.

In anoth­er stu­dy, uni­vers­ity stu­dents of high­er so­cial stand­ing, based on their self-reported per­cep­tions of their fam­i­lies’ so­ci­o­ec­on­om­ic sta­tus, were found to have had a harder time ac­cu­rately read­ing a stranger’s emo­tions dur­ing a group job in­ter­view. 

But a fi­nal ex­pe­ri­ment found that, when peo­ple were made to feel that they were at a low­er so­cial class than they ac­tu­ally were, they got bet­ter at read­ing emo­tions. So “it’s not some­thing in­grained,” Kraus said.


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People of low socioeconomic status are better at reading others’ emotions than are upper-class folk, a new study finds. Yet the effect seems to be reversible by simply changing people’s perceptions of their own status. Researchers speculate that the pattern occurs because poorer people rely more on friends than on money to help fulfill day-to-day needs. For example, someone who can’t afford day care for their children might ask a neighbor or relative to babysit. “It’s all about the social context the person lives in, and the specific challenges the person faces. If you can shift the context even temporarily, social class differences in any number of behaviors can be eliminated,” said Michael W. Kraus of the University of California-San Francisco, one of the researchers. The study, by Kraus and two other scientists, appears in the research journal Psychological Science. The group conducted three experiments. One used volunteers who worked at a university. Some had graduated from college and others had not; researchers used educational level as an indicator of social class, since the two are strongly correlated in population studies. The volunteers took a test of emotion perception, in which they were asked to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions each face was displaying. Better-educated people performed worse than people with less education, Kraus and colleagues said. In another study, university students of higher social standing, based on their self-reported perceptions of their families’ socioeconomic status, were found to have had a harder time accurately reading a stranger’s emotions during a group job interview. But a final experiment found that, when people were made to feel that they were at a lower social class than they actually were, they got better at reading emotions. So “it’s not something ingrained,” Kraus said.