The Wolf of Wall Street/Paramount Pictures

Rich people really do ignore you when you walk past

We knew it.

JOSH HRALA
23 OCT 2016
 

Psychologists have found evidence that wealthy people pay less attention to those around them compared to people of lower social status.

The findings back up what many of us have already suspected - rich people don't view the rest of us as threatening or potentially rewarding, so they basically just ignore us.

 

"Across field, lab, and online studies, our research documents that other humans are more likely to capture the attention of lower-class individuals than the attention of higher-class individuals," said team leader Pia Dietze, from New York University.

"Like other cultural groups, social class affects information processing in a pervasive and spontaneous manner."

It’s important to note right off the bat that the team isn’t saying that rich people willingly ignore the rest of the world. Instead, they think that the behaviour is a fundamentally rooted, culturally ingrained psychological phenomenon that's known as 'motivational relevance'.

In other words, we pay more visual attention to people and things that might benefit or harm us – and for rich people, that's not those in lower social classes.

To test this hypothesis, the team performed a series of experiments. First, they gathered 61 pedestrians in New York City and outfitted them with Google Glass, after asking them a series of questions to gauge what social class they identified with.

The participants were told that they were just there to test the technology, and were asked to simply walk down the street. The team then analysed the video footage captured to see what things around them – specifically, other people – they were noticing. 

 

"The results indicated that social class didn’t seem to play a role in how many times Glass wearers looked at other people," the team explains.

"But social class was associated with how much time they spent looking at passers-by: participants who categorised themselves as being in a higher social class spent less time looking at other people than those who placed themselves in a lower social class."

To back up this initial experiment, the team conducted another. This time, 393 online participants were asked to view alternating pairs of images. Each of the images contained a face and several objects. The team then asked the participants – after alternating the images – if anything in them had changed.

They found that those in higher social classes took longer than those in lower classes to point out that the faces changed on the screen, meaning that they weren’t paying as much attention to the faces compared to those in lower social classes.

The team says this strengthens their hypothesis that those in lower social classes looked longer and paid closer attention to those around them, compared to higher class individuals that would have less psychological motivation to do so.

The experiment also showed that wealthy people weren't aware they were ignoring people. Instead, it was a behaviour that seems to be culturally ingrained – but there's still a lot of research needed to understand how this happens.

It's important to note that the participants self-reported their social class, which could have skewed the results. And while using Google Glass for research is interesting, people most likely look around differently while wearing it, especially for the first time, so we have to take the results with a grain of salt.

But as the researchers note, investigating how we relate to each other based on our social standing could lead to invaluable insights into the social issues that come with that. 

"Our work contributes to a growing knowledge base around the influence of social class background on psychological functioning," said Dietze.

"The more we know about the effect of social class differences, the better we can address widespread societal issues - this research is just one piece of the puzzle."

The team’s work was published in Psychological Science.

More From ScienceAlert