Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, and Michael W. Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have done much of the research on social power and the attention deficit.
Mr. Keltner suggests that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.
~ from Rich People Just Care Less by Daniel Goleman ~
Why does recent research suggest that the wealthy are less empathetic than the rest of the population? In my mind's eye, the answer is insulation. We put insulation in our homes to keep the warmth in and the cold out. Insulation serves as a physical barrier that makes the modern home more liveable.
The wealthy insulate themselves in a virtual cocoon of wealth and power. Consequently, their only experiences are with others of wealth and power -- the dreams, concerns and interests of those without wealth and power are kept from penetrating into their royal chambers. If you don't spend any time thinking about the situations of others -- particularly others in the lower strata -- there is a much greater chance that you will deem their issues as inconsequential.
Centuries ago the Taoist sages recognized this same happenstance. Even back then, the rich and powerful showed little empathy for the unwashed masses. That is why they emphasized a life of simplicity -- riches tend to complicate not only an individual's personal satisfaction with life but societal relations as well.
While providing for all the creature comforts of life, wealth/power generates untold amounts of internal stress. Having so very much means there always is the possibility that you will lose so very much. You must be ever vigilant to protect all you have from real and imagined adversaries. The best way to protect yourself from loss is to get more and more. So, you push yourself to become ever more wealthy and powerful. What a treadmill to be on!
With all your attention and energies focused on obtaining more, you simply don't have the time or interest of examining the needs and interests of others who are not in a similar situation. Your all-consuming preoccupation with wealth and power serves to insulate you from the issues that relate to the vast majority of your fellow citizens. Because you have become so self-absorbed, you end up with an empathy deficit and this deficit results in far-reaching implications for the whole of society.