Make Rich People Read Chekhov
There have been two articles in the New York Times very recently concerning empathy.
First, there was this Opinionator piece about how rich people have less empathy. Second, there was this Well blogpost which reports on a study that implies you can improve your empathy skills, at least in the short term, by reading literary fiction like Chekhov.
Empathy means understanding and sharing the feelings of other people. So what do these two columns actually refer to?
For rich people, it’s mostly about attention rather than empathy. The idea is that researchers study how people pay attention to people (answer: they pay attention to high status people more), and found that rich people don’t do it much at all. They claim attention is a prerequisite for empathy, and that there’s a negative feedback loop going on with the rich, a lack of empathy, and increasing inequality.
As for the literary fiction column, it cites a study in which what they measure is something a little bit different, namely the “theory of mind” of a person after reading Checkhov versus something else. The concept of the theory of mind is that we have internal models of other people’s mindset, and actually they claim to be able to separate this into two parts, cognitive and affective. So if I have a realistic impression of what you’re feeling, we say that my affective theory of mind is good, whereas if I have a realistic impression of how you’re planning to act, that’s called nailing a cognitive theory of mind.
A few comments:
- I’m not so sure about the attention-leads-to-empathy assumption. Sometimes I am on a subway and I start sensing people’s emotions around me whether I like it or not, even when I’m trying not to pay attention to them. For me empathy is like smell, and some people are incredibly smelly, especially on the subway.
- On the other hand it resonates with me that rich people have less empathy. Certainly this seemed to be the case when I worked at D.E. Shaw, although it might have been a self-selection thing: maybe people who are not empathetic are attracted to working at a hedge fund.
- In any case, there’s a tremendous disconnect between regular people and the attitude of finance people, along the lines of “I’m smarter than those people so I deserve to be rich”, and I ascribe much of this disconnect to a lack of empathy.
- In both of these columns, though, the question was how well do you pay attention to, and read, people in the same room with you. Unfortunately that’s not a good enough question, at least if you’re worried about that negative feedback loop, if you think about the real world. In the real world, even in New York, rich people don’t spend lots of time in the same room with anyone except other rich people. So it’s a bigger problem to address than what you might at first think.
- Having said that, I don’t claim that if everyone just had more empathy all our problems would be solved. Even so I do think it might help. Certainly my sensitivity to other people’s emotions deeply affects me and my actions and goals, but of course that’s too little evidence to go by.
- In any case it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine a world of increased empathy. I like that it’s being considered as a basic attribute of interest, and that it seems tweakable.
- Conclusion: before talking to someone I perceive as unempathetic, I will bust out a Checkov short story (this one) and demand they read it on the spot. That should really help.