You may have read about the ever-widening income gap in the United States. But before you despair, there IS a silver lining.

While counter-intuitive to most of us, a recent article in Scientific American tells us that as riches increase, our capacity for empathy, and the ability to understand others’ perspectives, decreases. The authors, two behavioral psychologists from UC Berkeley, cite several studies, including one in which luxury car drivers are found more likely to cut people off and not wait their turns in traffic.  This was true, even after they made eye contact with other drivers or pedestrians (I for one can attest to having been cut off by a Porsche Cayenne just last week!). 

In another study, people who viewed themselves as better off financially took more candy offered to them than did less well-off individuals. This persisted even after they were told that any remaining candy would be given to children. As well, when lower income individuals where shown videos of children with cancer, the individuals were more likely to express a sense of compassion both attitudinally and viscerally. Their heart rates slowed down - a physical indication of tuning into others’ feelings.      

So why would someone who has MORE, be LESS giving or caring? 

From a behavioral standpoint, the authors point to two factors. The first, is that upper class individuals are less likely to pay attention to those with whom they are interacting. The second factor is that upper class individuals are worse than their middle and lower-class counterparts at recognizing emotions. [1]

Further, from an attitudinal standpoint, the authors speculate that wealth provides a feeling of independence from others. When we no longer need to rely upon others, we simply care less about their feelings.

So, moral, political, and societal concerns aside, why should we care? 

As strategic marketers, we like to think we’re pretty good at understanding consumers. But is it possible, we may still be at risk for falling prey to these behavioral and attitudinal traps?

Let’s face it, it’s challenging to consistently slow down the speeding train in our heads long enough to really pay attention to what someone else (like a consumer) is saying and to extract nuggets of truth. To take our own history, experiences, and preconceived notions (i.e. judgments and biases) out of the equation when trying to understand where another person is coming from is tricky - never mind skillfully recognizing their emotions and what they really want.

Take understanding teenagers for example. If we were to only see the surface of their actions or listen only to the exact meaning of their words, we might conclude that they were fully self-sufficient beings who, by and large, wish to be left alone. But if we were to pay attention and listen to what is below the surface, we’d understand that couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

Paying close attention is necessary to cultivate the level of consumer understanding needed to create products and services that will meet with success in the marketplace.  We have a saying in the office, “Empathy is a muscle we must exercise to make strong.”

At Ignite 360, we tackle Paying Attention head-on, emphasizing and practicing the effective behaviors of:

1) Dismantling bias and judgment,

2) Asking open, “roomy” questions, and

3) Listening actively and with interest.

When the marketers at PepsiCo looked to expand their Mountain Dew product line, they widened their view. They dismantled their soft drink bias (i.e. how carbonated soft drinks are typically consumed). They explored outside of carbonated soda “norms.” Their roomy questions and active observations fed into the highly successful launch of Mountain Dew KickStart. It combines fruit juice (a traditional morning drink) with carbonated soda. It gives a significant segment of consumers not necessarily what they asked for, but just what they wanted.

Without vigilantly exercising the Paying Attention behaviors, it’s easy to come out of research with “findings” that not surprisingly support our initial suppositions. It may seem great at first, but not so positive when concepts come back underperforming. But with true attention, we hear what is said, as well as what is not said. We find ourselves much better positioned to practice the second part of the equation, Recognizing Emotions.  

In a perfect world, we would all have been gifted with these professional (and life) enhancing talents. But the truth is, “zipping into” someone else’s skin isn’t easy[2]. Honing these competencies take a little bit of art, and a fair amount of practice. But fine-tuning understanding skills in a world where words are increasingly misunderstood, and gaps are increasingly widened, seems to make a lot of sense.  

Back to the silver lining of the income gap…we should start to see an uptick in empathy overall, thanks to the 99% of us. 

For more information on good consumer understanding habits to transform your business, including our Empathy Camp workshops, contact us at or join the conversation on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.

[1] How much the lack of paying attention feeds into the failure to recognize emotions was not mentioned.

[2] Thank you Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir, for that metaphor.