The psychology of wealth can make you less compassionate

This title may seem strange, but it is based on a study completed by the University of California at Berkeley and University of Toronto. The folks who scoff at this title and study authors would also be the ones who would say “what would you expect from a study done in UC-Berkeley.” Yet, the principal author Paul Piff, noted in the LA Times “I regularly hear the Berkeley idiot scientist who’s finding what they expect to find. Let me tell you, we didn’t expect to find this. Our findings apply to both liberals and conservatives. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re wealthy, you’re more likely to show these patterns of results.” Piff was interviewed along with Dr. Dacher Keltner on a PBS Newshour story by Paul Solman last month called “Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, ‘Pernicious’ Effects of Economic Inequality” which can be found with this link

The study concluded that people with wealth, whether it was real wealth or created in a game format, showed rather conclusively a higher propensity to have a sense of entitlement to get more than their fair share. It is not saying that every wealthy person would act this way and there are many exceptions, yet there was clear evidence to show a propensity to use their position to cut corners and gain further advantage. It also noted there tended to be a higher degree of compassion and fairness by those with less for others in similar or worse circumstances. In other words, it was harder for those who “have” to walk in the shoes of the “have-nots.”

I observe this often in trying to explain the needs of homeless or impoverished people. No matter how hard I try, there are audiences who can not be dissuaded from their pre-conceived notion that homeless or impoverished people are not deserving of help and that they should just get a job. This is one reason I always emphasize that 84% of the homeless families, an agency I work with helps, have jobs. We are also seeing it manifest in the United States with the increasing divide in wealth between those with and without and the decline in economic class mobility.

But, don’t take my word for it. I would encourage you to click on the link above and judge for yourself. The aforementioned study observed the following in multiple tests:

– At a four-way intersection, drivers of the priciest cars were 4 times more likely to fail to correctly yield the right of way than other drivers;

– In a waiting room with a jar of candy where the participants were all told the candy was being saved for a children’s meeting soon following, the wealthier participants took candy from the jar 2 times more frequently than non-wealthy participants;

– In a dice game to add up the results of dice rolls, with the person with largest dice tally winning $50, the wealthier participants were 4 times more likely to cheat; and

– Similar results were also found on other exercises around reporting of incorrect change to a small financial transaction or getting an incorrect grade on an exam when the participant knew they earned less. The wealthier participants reported the infraction in their favor fewer times.

The study went further to show the results of a weighted Monopoly game. One person would get to roll two dice to the other’s one, the same person would also get $2,000 to the other person’s $1,000 and get to use the car game piece to the other person’s lesser token. What the study observed, the person in the game who had the most money and best opportunity to win, used directive comments that showed a sense of entitlement to their success. When the study flipped the weighting, the person who in real life was less affluent, but who now had the upper hand in the game, would also exhibit some of the same traits of entitlement.

The troubling part of the study, is people with wealth, whether real or contrived, exhibited a sense of entitlement to their wealth. It is the same reason when I wrote a few months ago that Warren Buffett said he was also “lucky” to be as wealthy, it bothered people. He said he worked hard, but he was born a white male in America, which gave him a leg up. By the way, Buffett is definitely one of the exceptions to the rule about compassion.

Yet, there is hope. Dr. Keltner, who heads the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley noted: “One of the things that wealth and money does is it comes with a set of values, and if you want a deeper ideology, and one of them is, generosity is for suckers and greed is good. But it turns out, there are a lot of new data that show, if you’re generous, and charitable, and altruistic, you will live longer, you will feel more fulfilled, you will feel more expressive of who you are as a person. You probably will feel more control and freedom in your life.”

The above translates to business success, as well. In the highly acclaimed business book by Jim Collins called “Built to Last,” his team indicated that one of the reasons companies are much more successful than even their best competitors is called “Be more than profits.” These companies were terrific community citizens and invested their money and people’s time in needs of the community. As a result, people valued working there and the community was more supportive of the companies, in both good time and bad.

So, the key takeaways from this study to me are (1) do not let what you own define you, (2) do your best to understand what people in need go through – if you have not been there, you really don’t know what it’s like, (3) there is a huge psychic income to helping others and (4) doing the right thing can only be viewed in a good light. You will be on the “side of the angels.” Note, this post relied on several news articles in addition to the PBS Newshour piece mentioned above – LATimes,org, and

14 thoughts on “The psychology of wealth can make you less compassionate

  1. This is fantastic! You’ve done a wonderful job of summarizing the many studies done on this and the results of those studies. Now you HAVE to watch the documentary I mentioned called Park Avenue. It is on Netflix if you have that. It highlights the monopoly study as the introduction and conclusion of its exploration of the wealthiest street in our country. It also talks about how Park Avenue on one end of town is filthy rich, while on the other end of town, the children don’t have access to healthcare or enough to eat. It is quite the contrast. I have also seen the attitude you talk about with entitlement or looking down on those with less. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it, many times over. I just hope that I can continue to learn more about it, be more compassionate about it, and do something to help. I also think it is important for someone like me, who has enough, to be grateful for what I do have, instead of always wanting more. Thanks for posting this. You continue to inspire me!

    • Emily, thanks for taking the time to read this and offering your comments. I need to see Park Avenue, as it sounds worthwhile and paints the two America pictures. It is always a challenge for anyone (me included) to walk in someone’s shoes, to witness poverty, prejudice, etc.from the vantage point of the disenfranchised. Your words of encouragement are greatly appreciated. Thanks, BTG

  2. what interesting data! it’s like playing make-believe, and when given phony money, a person can shift into an imaginary other person, a bit like water mitty! there are lessons here for all of us to be on guard – always – when it comes to retaining our character.

    thanks for this! z

    • THanks Z. The Monopoly example was interesting. Even Paul Solman, the reporter from PBS Newshour, fell victim to it when he was asked to play it. We do have to guard against feeling entitled. Have a great weekend. BTG

  3. I have also observed that many who live on the ragged edge of poverty (1 paycheck away from disaster) are the most politically outspoken in opposing the things that might help them the most, like stricter oversight on big business and banking, healthcare reform, etc. It’s a strange disconnect caused by political obfuscation and inability to think deeper than tonight’s sound bytes on TV.

    • Your point is a good one. Based on the data I have seen, a significant part of the GOP are voting against their economic interests and have no idea they are. Poverty is a problem as you note, but it is in rural America as well as the cities. The Consumer Finance Protection agency that the GOP hates has successfully fined people like American Express and Capital One for fraudulent and aggressive marketing practices that take advantage of the one paycheck away folks. Thanks for writing, BTG

  4. Pingback: The psychology of wealth can make you less compassionate | MemePosts

    • Roseylinn, great article. I think wealth accumulation is also a way of keeping score, in a sad way. On the antithesis of this is the hardworking, quiet wealthy portrayed in the “Millionaire Next Door.” The purpose of this book is people who are not slaves to showing their wealth through purchases. They have a nice car, but keep it for a long time. They have a nice house, but not an ostentacious one. Thanks again for the link. BTG

  5. To me it seems it’s also due to an lack of empathy and the change in what’s moral and what’s not moral for the person/group.

    For example,

    Someone with wealth may see that the use of their wealth allows them to cut corners and then rationalize not of cutting corners but benefiting others. Like say hiring undocumented immigrants over legal workers. The Wealthy employer justifies such actions by claiming that this allows his business to grow, the government gets higher taxes and those people he’s paying should be happy to be getting paid at all. Which the conditions could be horrid for the worker the moral justification can still be presented. In the mind of the employer their actually being compassionate to the worker because they gave them a job while ignoring the conditions.

    The same could be said about a wealthy philanthropist whose assets are invested in companies that destroys the environments in 3rd world countries or communities who then donates to a causes to help the same people in the effected country. While the Wealthy philanthropist investments are helping to destroy another country for a profit their morally justifying this by donating to a charity that happen to be created from the destruction the Philanthropist profited from.

    I think the other issue is the promoting of self over others and the History Channel 7 deadly sins “Greed” which you can find on youtube had a great piece on this. As Gordon Geeko Said “Greed is Good” and as one found in the Reagan Era that being compassionate was showing very little for others. Also one to take into effect of P.R. departments that allowed people to believe their uncompassionate actions was somehow compassionate. It would only seem to make since that the Wealthy would be less compassionate if the belief that one should think of oneself over others.

    • Very good thoughts. In general, we as a people are great rationalizers. It is one reason why men in power feel it is OK if they philander, since they are doing good things and it is owed to them. I often find people who want laws, but not laws that apply to them, as they feel they are doing enough good and are above the law. And, as the point of the great Led Zeppelin song, some who have made their money on the backs of others are trying to “buy a stairway to heaven.” Bill Gates is now known as one of the more astute philanthropists, along with his wife Melinda. But, after a life of self-centered behavior, it was Gates’ mother who said you need to do for others now. Thanks for writing. Best regards, BTG

  6. Pingback: Why would someone hit my car in a parking lot and not leave a note? | musingsofanoldfart

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