The psychology of wealth can make you less compassionate – a reprise about an interesting study

After being reminded of this study in a comment on my last post, I decided to republish a post from 2013. I found it fascinating reading about the comparative psychology of the haves and have-nots.

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 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/jan-june13/makingsense_06-21.html.

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, Dailycal.org and Highandernews.org.

18 thoughts on “The psychology of wealth can make you less compassionate – a reprise about an interesting study

  1. Excellent advice Keith, and thanks for sharing this study. Not all the billionaires/millionaires out there are bad. Some are very empathetic and generous-i.e Mr. Buffett. We need more like him!!

    • Jeff, thanks. You are right, there are some altruistic wealthy folks. An interesting stat from a forgotten source noted that people with leas gave a higher percentage of wealth to those in need than those with more. Keith

  2. As a driver and bicycle rider I’m always a bit wary of the BMVs. No big news. Collecting all that picayune data must’ve been a chore, but they probably have nothing else there to do in Berkeley.

  3. Excellent, Keith! This confirms what I’ve been saying for a long time. In various posts, I have noted some of the exceptions such as Warren Buffett, Bill & Melinda Gates, and more, but overall, it seems that especially those who were born into wealthy, have no empathy for those they consider ‘beneath’ them. This is one of the issues I have with our politicians being wealthy, never having known what it was like to struggle … they cannot understand the 99% of us, for they have never been where we are. The results of this study don’t surprise me at all … I’m rather glad to have my own thoughts confirmed, for more than a few times I have been taken to task for saying the wealthy are greedy and ought to pay a higher proportion in taxes. What the Sam Heck does anybody need billions of dollars for, anyway? Why not give it to people who need it, support causes that help people?

    • Jill, there are more than a few eleemosynary wealthy folks, I agree. Yet, one of the key takeaways is the feeling of being owed or entitled. There is an old line that is pertinent and applies to people like the outgoing president. “They are born on third base and think they hit a triple.” So, some feel it gives me the license to cheat or cut corners. Remember how the president was admonished by the New York courts for using his Foundation money for his personal benefit? The court made him repay the money and disbanded the trust using people “not named Trump” to dole out the money per the mission of the Foundation. Keith

      • And it is at this point that I could fully support a socialist system, or at least a perfect version of one, not tempered by human greed and arrogance. That sense of ‘entitlement’ galls me, for it is rather luck of the draw that they were born with that silver spoon in their mouth, not merit.

      • Jill, as we have discussed our economic system is a fettered capitalistic one, with socialistic underpinnings with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Workers Compensation, Unemployment benefits, ACA subsidies, etc. We need to have a non-political dialogue on the proper balance between the two. To start with, many Americans do not realize the first sentence is true, just as many do not realize their employer matches their FICA contributions to Social Security and Medicare. Keith

  4. In the light of the demise of an Arch-Greed Monger this was a timely post Keith
    I’d like to throw something else into the mix.
    Fear. Fear is a strong motivator in the complexity of the Human Complex. I would suggest there is a tendency in the wealthy buried very, very deep within them based on Fear. A Fear instinctual that they could be in danger of losing their ‘environment’ , thus in turn they (We shall call them ‘The Subject’) feel the need to gather more, the more they have the safer they are. This Fear is encouraged by the world they inhabit which is one of other wealthy people and the latent suspicion of those folk maybe wanting to grab some of the spare wealth before our Subject can, or worse try and steal away The Subject’s wealth.
    Fear is part of Survival and these folk sitting on their volcanoes of Privilege look down and dread become like ‘the rest of us’.
    I do not cite this as an excuse, we all need to be aware of our Fear and reign it in.
    (I could go on with other analogies but we’ll leave it here).

    • Roger, you have hit upon an underlying theme which does get not discussed enough. A lot of what is happening in America is demographic driven. Whites will no longer be a majority in about twenty years, being a plurality. So, not having the same clout with elected officials scares some wealthy folks. Some are taking it to the extreme, but former Republican advisor Steve Schmidt said there has been a long term strategy to make the party bigger and absent that, to increase influence wherever possible. I made this comment to my wife when I saw some of the Trump terrorists toting not only a Confederate flag but a Russian one as well. Schmidt commented that Russia is very homogenous and is autocratic in nature. Keith

      • The problem with this strategy Keith is that it creates enclaves of very disaffected people.
        I don’t suppose anyone in the GOP would even stop for a moment to do this, but a brief reading of Ulster’s recent history would serve them up a warning.
        I love the idea of one of them carrying a Russian Flag, they would find out soon enough that:
        A) Russian governments of all sorts have very strong views about private folk carrying weapons.
        B) Attempting to assail a government building has not been tried since the 1917 Revolution, and since then it has been discouraged with ‘Extreme Prejudice’
        Poor shmucks.

  5. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether I am wealthy or not. I need to remain human. If I worked hard and built up a financial cushion, I deserve it all, and I am entitled to enjoy it. There is no need to feel guilty. Actually, rich people spend more money which is good for the economy. There must not be forgotten that some are working hard too and not making it to a better financial situation. They are not less worthy. Life happens and as Buffet said, he was fortunate to be white. Unfortunately, it has an impact on where you start. As you said, nobody is standing in another person’s shoes. What we need to learn is not to judge someone from his bank account -.both sides!

    • Erika, true. And, please do not assume this is an indictment of a whole group. Note the study talks about a higher propensity to do something, not that all rich people are doing this. For example, in the study if a less wealthy person may cheat 5 out of 100 times, it may mean more wealthy people may cheat 10 or 20 times out of 100. That means there are 80 or 90 who are not so inclined

      Many of our charities and university buildings are named after very wealthy people who gave money away. And, I spent twenty years of my life speaking with chamber groups, churches, synagogues, etc. to solicit donations for people in need.

      A key point is this feeling of entitlement in those who are prone to cheat. The cheating group feels like they have the right to cut corners. In my professional life, I worked with a lot of CEOs and Boards of Directors. I have witnessed some of the finest leaders and egalitarian people, but I have also witnessed some of the greediest SOBs, whose primary motivation is what’s in it for me?

      In the US, CEO pay averages around 350 to 1 of the average pay of the non-management group. In other countries, that ratio is more like 20 to 1. I can assure you, US CEOs are not better and especially not that much better than those elsewhere. Keith

  6. Back when I was working for tips, I always got better tips from working class folks. Doctors, lawyers, rich businessmen, forget about it. They were the worst. The more money a customer had, the worse the tip was going to be.

    • Great story. You reminded me of a story a local (now syndicated) DJ told. Her partner asked her what was the largest tip she ever got at her first job of delivering pizza? She did not miss a beat and said $2. He said $2, that is not that much. She said when she arrived the kids were beyond ecstatic and the single mother explained. We save up for pizza once a month, so this is a special treat. So, as she started to leave, the mother insisted she take the $2 tip saying you work hard, too, please take it. Keith

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