A series of studies published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that people of higher socioeconomic status (SES) score consistently lower on tests of emotional intelligence, especially when they perceive high levels of inequality in their community. The researchers suggest that high SES and high subjective inequality promotes increased self-focus and less motivation to attend to others’ emotions.
Previous studies have explored the link between social class and emotional intelligence, generating mixed findings. Some researchers have suggested that people with higher SES are more self-sufficient since they have a greater share of the resources in their community and are less likely to turn to others for support. Accordingly, they have less of a need to relate to others and should have lower emotional intelligence. Anita Schmalor and Steven J. Heine proposed that this link between higher social class and lower emotional intelligence should be especially strong among those who perceive higher inequality because greater inequality should make the effects of SES even more consequential.
An initial study was conducted among Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers. The participants self-reported their SES and then indicated the extent that they perceive economic inequality in their state. They additionally took a situational test of emotional intelligence.
The results revealed that high SES was associated with lower emotional intelligence. In line with the study authors’ expectations, greater perceptions of inequality was also linked to lower emotional intelligence. Moreover, the negative relationship between SES and emotional intelligence was strongest among those who perceived greater inequality. Two additional studies among MTurk workers replicated these effects.
However, a follow-up study among a Canadian community sample failed to replicate the findings. Here, SES and emotional intelligence were not significantly associated. Moreover, subjective inequality and emotional intelligence were only significantly linked when the researchers included the covariates of gender, political orientation, SES, and unfairness beliefs about inequality.
Lastly, the researchers found partial support for their hypotheses in an experimental study that used a manipulation of subjective inequality. American participants watched a video that either detailed how economic inequality has increased in recent times (high inequality condition), or described how economic inequality has not increased (low inequality condition). Those who watched the high inequality video reported higher perceptions of inequality but did not demonstrate lower emotional intelligence. However, high SES was linked to lower emotional intelligence, and this link was only significant among those in the high inequality condition.
A meta-analysis that incorporated the findings from the five studies found a small but significant negative link between perceived inequality and emotional intelligence. Schmalor and Heine theorize that economic inequality promotes an environment of self-focus and competitiveness since there’s a bigger gap between those at the top and the bottom of the hierarchy, and thus the stakes are higher.
The study authors point out that the small effects they found could end up having considerable consequences. For example, social issues like violence are more common in areas with greater inequality, and these issues seem to involve a lack of attending to others’ emotions and needs. “Perhaps one of the reasons that countries with lower inequality suffer less from these problems may be that their citizens are more attentive to the struggles of those around them,” the authors suggest.
Of note, four out of the five studies were conducted among residents of the United States, where inequality is particularly high. The findings may not translate to other countries where inequality is lower. For example, the only sample that failed to link high SES with low emotional intelligence was the Canadian sample, who also perceived less inequality compared to the Americans.
The study, “Subjective Economic Inequality Decreases Emotional Intelligence, Especially for People of High Social Class”, was authored by Anita Schmalor and Steven J. Heine.