Why Emotional Intelligence Takes a Dive Among the Affluent

For years, social psychologists knew those with high socioeconomic status read the emotions of others poorly. But a June 2021 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found when people experience economic inequality, they develop a more competitive mindset and, as a result, their emotional intelligence decreases.

“There’s more to gain and more to lose when there’s more inequality; people become more self-focused,” says study co-author Steven Heine, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. Generally, nobody wants to be at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, he says. When resources for those at the lower end shrink, competition increases and, in lock step, so does a more selfish outlook. “What we find is when people see more economic inequality, that makes them behave more like wealthier people,” he says.  

“Economic inequality has been increasing in many countries around the world, especially in the United States. When there’s more inequality, people become less interested in each other,” Heine says. This leads to more criminal behavior, more corruption, more people willing to cut corners and cheat, he says. “All these situations have been found to occur when people are a little more selfish and self-focused,” he says, and “more competitive and less attentive to their fellow citizens.” Perhaps one of the reasons countries with lower inequality experience fewer societal problems may be that their citizens are more attentive to the struggles of others, he and his coauthor wrote in their study.

Coined by researchers Peter Salovey, now president of Yale University, and John Mayer in 1990, emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to recognize, understand, label, respond to and regulate the emotions in ourselves and others. Strong emotional intelligence has been correlated to workplace success, and much has been written about it. However, a 2004 review in Applied Psychology  suggests there’s more hyperbole than hard evidence, “with over-reliance in the literature on expert opinion, anecdote, case studies” and unpublished surveys.

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