Home > finance, musing, news > Make Rich People Read Chekhov

Make Rich People Read Chekhov

October 9, 2013

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
Categories: finance, musing, news
  1. Leila Schneps
    October 9, 2013 at 7:29 am

    It’s a bit annoying that the sweet guy with an inability to feel anything has to be a statistician. Bit of a stereotype?


    • October 9, 2013 at 7:45 am

      Wait, which guy?


      • Leila Schneps
        October 9, 2013 at 8:47 am

        Well, the main character of course. Good-willed and kind but devoid of any feeling. The implication being either that studying statistics kills natural feelings, or that only people with no natural feelings would ever study statistics…


    • Joshua
      October 9, 2013 at 8:55 am

      He does feel, he just doesn’t happen to love Vera. If anything, I would say it is anti-stereotype that he gets on so well with these people he didn’t know and unintentionally wins the affection of the daughter.

      However, as to the main point of the post: after reading the story, I’d still classify myself as heartless.


  2. ddf
    October 9, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Ha ha reading Chekhov is a good enough activity independently of any potential societal benefit!


  3. Abe Kohen
    October 9, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Saying rich people ought to read Chekhov, is like saying poor people ought to read Ayn Rand.


  4. Guest2
    October 9, 2013 at 8:06 am

    Empathy is heavily situational.

    It all depends on the situation, and to say that it doesn’t is another example of fundamental attribution error.


  5. danielstillit
    October 9, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Paul Bloom’s article in the New Yorker recently dissected and made the case against empathy http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2013/05/20/130520crat_atlarge_bloom.
    To quote: “Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.” And “On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.) But the appetite for retribution is typically indifferent to long-term consequences. “


  6. mb
    October 9, 2013 at 8:16 am

    The problem with the first article, and one that liberals have in general is this: disagreeing with YOUR solution, is not not caring about the problem. The second article, well I’ll wait till it is replicated – I won’t be holding my breath.


  7. Zathras
    October 9, 2013 at 9:40 am

    “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. ”

    I used to think this was true of all people, but it dawned on me a few years ago that many people really are oblivious to this. This is much more of a personality type, rather than a fundamental law of human nature, unfortunately.


    • October 9, 2013 at 2:19 pm

      Or fortunately, if you want to be able to read your book on the subway in peace!

      Empathy uses lots of subskills: I personally am good at the novelist’s trick of figuring out how someone will react based on their background & conversation, but not particularly attuned to body language. My attention patterns match my strengths: on the subway I eavesdrop, but can blissfully ignore people who aren’t talking or impinging on my personal bubble.


  8. ccf
    October 9, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Schlock “science”. Frankly, given your writings on metric abuse in algorithms e.g. teacher evaluation models (which I appreciate), I would have assumed you would be a bit more rigorous in your thinking before embracing of this work. Using terms such as “empathy” to describe what they measure in their models is a cheap play to abuse terms loaded with emotional content that depend heavily on context.


    • October 9, 2013 at 10:01 am

      For me it’s all about usage. If they concluded that rich people really should bebforced to read Chekhov then I would be much more vigilant.


  9. Heather
    October 9, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I think Rep. Randy Neugebauer’s words to a park ranger say it all: “How do you look at [this group of veterans] and … deny them access?” The veterans, the schoolchildren, the civilian contractors who work for the military…none of them spend time in rooms with the rich or the powerful, so the rich and the powerful imagine them in their own images. Neugebauer imagined the park ranger had the authority to open the gates to veterans and the economic security to do whatever she damn well pleased. Most people in the US don’t actually live in that reality, sadly.


    • Guest2
      October 9, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      Yes, agreed.

      I don’t expect empathy from a McDonalds cashier, but I do expect it from my psychoanalyst.

      In fact, discretion is continuously stripped away in modern life (as this blog repeatedly demonstrates), taking away empathy and the opportunities for showing empathy with it.


  10. October 9, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Re Chekhov: or read “The Kiss” or “An Attack of Nerves” or “Ward 6”.


  11. October 9, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Hey Cathy, kudos as I read today that DE Shaw is no longer taking in new investors and you said that in one of your video presentations as more get into math models and try to come up with the “winning” models it becomes more difficult to keep the trend going to build models that profit…just thought I would add that…but they are keeping the “reinsurance” business which is a topic for another day:)

    On empathy, yes and it’s even scarier in healthcare as that’s our lives and I breath and eat material on this topic. It is a problem with perceptions as I would call it. You do become products of environments for sure.

    The Arnold P. Gold Foundation ( http://www.humanism-in-medicine.org) a first of its kind institute for research on humanism in medicine was created last year. People do get blinded for sure and this is the “last” place where we need any lack of empathy for sure. It’s not ok to let a machine completely delegate what kind of care you will receive as you read about the folks that think machines can do it all, they can’t. Machines can give decision making information on illness, etc. but no way delegate the care and replace the human element. Some idiot in Japan thought a machine could do this and created the “end of life robot”..it makes your hair stand up on end and fully substantiates what you are saying here with empathy for sure:) Maybe they should start selling these to the wealthy to make a point about empathy (grin)..sorry a little satire here.



  12. Becky Jaffe
    October 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    How do you define “rich people?” And more importantly, how do rich people define “rich people?” I’ve worked for a number of rich people for years and one thing I have noticed they have in common (aside from having gobs of money) is that they feverishly deny being rich. Privilege appears to be most advantageous when it is least acknowledged. If no one is willing to self-identify as privileged, then how do we begin to develop empathy for people who are less privileged?


  13. DS
    October 9, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    I bet this Chekhov’s story would freak rich people out: http://www.online-literature.com/donne/1248/


  14. October 9, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    I would love to see a study of the average income of Chekhov readers… My bet > 65k/yr


  15. Sara
    October 9, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    You might be interested in http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=7715, which is a critical take on the study in Science.


  16. Maxine L. Rockoff
    October 14, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Hey, Cathy, my husband, who was cleaning out his desk, handed me a Chekhov medal that my father acquired in Russia in 1935. What’s the probability of two serious Chekhov references in one day?? I’ll pop the medal in my tote to show you Friday. Cheers, Maxine


    • October 15, 2013 at 7:16 am

      Pretty good if you hang out with me, since one of my best friends is a Chekhov scholar and now everything in my life references that dude. See you soon!!


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