Once again, The Economist published an interesting study on “why posh people spend less time noticing others.” In an article entitled “Your Class determines how you look

[sic] your fellow creatures” in the science and technology section of the October 11, 2016 issue, the unnamed author recounts the experiments of Dr. Pia Dietz and Dr. Eric Knowles, psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley.

Studying people from different walks of life, these researchers “…noticed that those from the upper classes were less good than those from the lower at discerning emotions on the face of others.” (Id.) From this the researchers wondered if we lose our ability to empathize as we move upwards.

To determine the answer, the researchers asked participants to use Google glasses on the pretext that they were studying the glasses themselves. In reality, the researchers were studying the participants’ behavior by utilizing the tiny video camera hidden in the glasses to see what exactly the wearer was looking at. Each of the 61 participants walked for a block in New York, focusing their interest on whatever caught their attention. The glasses recorded everything they looked at.

After their walk, the participants filled out a questionnaire, which among other things, sought the usual background information; age, sex, ethnicity, income, level of education, and the social class to which they believed they belonged. (Id.)

The researchers then handed the video recordings to “coders” who were asked to identify “… participants’ glances at other people and to record the duration of each glaze.” (Id.)

When the researchers compared the coding with the questionnaires, they found

…that the number of gazes at strangers did not vary with social class, but their duration did. Specifically, upper middle-class and upper-class people gazed at the faces of other for a fifth of a second less than member of lower classes.  

 The researchers then conducted two more experiments asking those participants to look at street scenes in New York, London and San Francisco, and then at different images of either inanimate objects or faces.  Again, in each of these additional experiments, they found that when the participants viewed faces (as opposed to objects) lower class people held their glaze on the face longer than did the upper class or middle upper class folks. (Id.)

The conclusion: “… those from lower classes really do take more notice of faces than those who inhabit the top of the heap.” (Id.)  The researchers speculated that those in the upper classes pay less attention to others “… because they believe random strangers have little to offer.” (Id.)

Bias comes in all forms; often unconsciously or implicitly. How many times have we given little (or no) credence to what someone was saying or shrugged off the person entirely because of her appearance, the way she was dressed, her lack of education, her heritage, her lack of sophistication or knowledge, her accent, her broken English or other language, or some other major or very minor attribute or lack thereof about her?

While our biases may help us navigate our way through the world on a daily basis (i.e. heuristics), at the same time, we must be aware that they can also lead us into error.

… Just something to think about.


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