Mitt Romney is not what you could call a man of the people—that is, if by “the people” you mean the voters he meets on the campaign trail. (The one-percent types he rubs shoulders with at dinner parties are a different story.) Much has been made of how out-of-touch Romney is with the middle-class Americans he is trying to win over. For some reason, we can’t help but recall that he’s the son of a governor, that he went to Harvard, and that he is fantastically rich. But his social troubles go beyond making gaffes in public: His attempts at small talk come off no less alien. “He is not fed by, and does not crave, casual social interaction,” Vanity Fair reports. “He has that invisible wall between ‘me’ and ‘you.’” No wonder that when he’s out shaking hands and kissing babies, he has trouble coming up with the right response to voters’ questions and comments. Was Mitt just born with a silver foot in his mouth, or have his class credentials stunted his social skills?
Studies from a 2010 paper published in Psychological Science suggest that it could be the latter. When asked to identify human emotion, study participants with lower socioeconomic status (SES) scored better on measures of emotional empathy than those with higher status. This held true regardless of whether the participant’s SES was measured by educational attainment or whether it was subjectively self-reported. Even when researchers randomly assigned participants an SES, those given a lower status demonstrated greater empathy. (Empathy was evaluated based on the participants’ responses to photographs of human faces or eye-muscle configurations displaying different emotions, or through responses after live interaction with a stranger.) The paper’s authors found that individuals who were ranked in lower classes within each study “scored higher on a measure of empathic accuracy, judged the emotions of a stranger more accurately and inferred emotions more accurately from subtle expressions in the eyes” relative to their upper-class counterparts. So next time you notice Romney’s awkward attempts to connect with a voter, don’t blame him—blame his millions.