No Wonder Those Real Housewives Are Desperate

The weird science of the rich and poor

If you’ve ever watched the nonstop parade of narcissism and insensitivity that makes up any episode of the Real Housewives franchise, you’ve no doubt slapped your forehead and said, “WTF is up with these bitches?” Thanks to science, now we know. A paper by three researchers published in Psychological Science explains that the problem really isn’t us; it’s them. Rich people see the world differently from us common folk; they suffer from “empathy deficits.” In other words, they’re not as good as the less well-to-do at reading the emotions of others.

In a series of experiments that involved looking at photos of strangers and taking part in simulated job interviews, the upper class consistently proved less adept than its poorer brethren at determining what other people were feeling. And the more upper-class the subjects, the more insensitive to the emotions of others they were.

The scientists who performed the study say that being able to identify what other people are feeling is a vital coping strategy for those on society’s lower rungs — a waiter who has to judge his boss’s mood, say, or a mom who relies on neighbors for babysitting. The rich, on the other hand, have no particular reason to care what others are feeling, and thus don’t. The study offers a clue to why women are more empathetic than men; historically, they’ve been much less empowered. Earlier research by the same scientists — Michael W. Kraus of the University of California San Francisco, Stéphane Côté at the University of Toronto, and Dacher Keltner of UCal Berkeley — showed that the lower classes are more helpful and generous as well.

This, of course, explains not only Bethenny’s tantrums, but also why the rich don’t give a shit about welfare-benefit cutoffs or the widening income chasm in this country. They don’t have a clue as to how the less well-off are suffering, and no amount of pleading can make them care more. (It’s also one more reason not to want your kid to go to an Ivy League school.) On the plus side, it’s so nice and cozy down here on the ladder with all you empathetic, helpful, generous types that I almost feel sorry for those Real Housewives, wandering through a world they’ll never understand.