Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Dangerous side-effects of wealth

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I’ve blogged about this someplace, but just saw it in a new light. First note this column about a series of experiments:

Wealthy individuals may be more unethical than those lower on the socioeconomic order, according to a new study by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto.  A series of experiments by a University of California psychologist indicates the rich are more prone to lie and cheat compared to the less well-off.  The study contradicts the belief that poor people are more likely to behave in an unethical manner out of financial necessity.

The findings were drawn from several experiments that included more than 1,000 people from all rungs of society.

“Elevated wealth status seems to make you want even more, and that increased want leads you to bend the rules or break the rules to serve your self-interest,”  said Paul Piff, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Berkeley and lead author of the report.

In one experiment, . . .

Continue article…

I think when people of wealth act corruptly a sense of “I deserve this” comes often to mind, which again shows the danger of relying only internal cues (the sense of deserving it) and ignoring the actual behavior — the objective action (embezzling funds or whatever). The focus on the reason they’re doing some immoral or unethical act (the reason being generally some combination of “I deserve this” and “they leave me no choice”) blinds their conscious judgment about what they’re doing.

Before doing the actual act, it’s good if you’ve made a practice of observing your behavior objectively, as others might view it. It’s helpful in developing this skill to keep a journal written from the point of view of an on-looker, a journal that ignores entirely your internal monologue of reasons and judgments. Record in the journal only the behavior and words that a person at your shoulder would witness. This works best if you write the journal in third person, referring to yourself as “he” or “she,” which maintains some psychic distance and makes it easier to enter the mindset of being an outside observer. Such a journal can act as a moral mirror. Just as a wall mirror lets you see your appearance as others will see it, the journal of your actions (without including your internal rationalizations and justifications) enables you to view your behavior as others will view it.

[In reading over this, I wondered whether an ideological blindness to inconsistent facts (the attitude that what’s “right” is more important than what’s true, when for a pragmatist, what’s true is always primary—cf. conservative opinion about climate change, anti-vaxxer opinion about vaccinations) is related to the way our beliefs about our motivations blind us to what we’re actually doing — that is, what an on-looker not distracted by our (internal) motivations would see us doing. For example, the crooked businessman’s initial response to discovery/arrest seems to be surprise—like he had no idea that what he was doing was wrong—and then he commonly says, “I know this looks bad…”, sort of waking up to how it looks/what it is, and thumbing through his internal motivations for reassurance that what he did was not actually wrong, it only looks wrong (to everyone in the world). – LG]

At any rate, my immediate thought was that wealth is like physical exertion or vitamin A or food itself: if you get too little, you’re badly damaged or can even die, but if you get too much, you also are badly damaged and can even die. The middle ground is the safe space—even with wealth.

A second thought stemmed from an earlier post about what the Christian God said when He came to town, and how strongly He (Jesus) spoke out against wealth. He explicitly stated that it was to be avoided, and I wonder whether the findings mentioned above show why. (It’s worth noting that Jesus spent almost all His time among the poor and marginalized, not among the wealthy and powerful. I think that fact is worth pondering.)

I can’t help but note that our track record when God Himself commands us NOT, under ANY circumstances, to do something, is not good. We pretty much hop to it and do whatever it is at the first opportunity. … Hmm. Just flashed on the quotation “By their fruits you shall know them,” not even recalling context but linking that to the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” — having eaten it, the fact cannot be hidden: we cannot help making statements that show that we have moral knowledge and a moral sense. The effects of eating the fruit reveal the fact of its consumption. “By their fruits you shall know them.” And that brought me back to wealth: those fruits are quite obvious: the wealthy consume more, and better, than anyone. But the study suggests that a serious side-effect seems to be (on average) a marked decline in moral and ethical standards — the very sort of thing Jesus would be concerned about. And by their fruits you shall know them. By their actions their moral values are revealed.

But that came to me just now as I typed. What I intended to blog in thinking about the effects of wealth on one’s moral character is that wealth corrupts our character. That’s not really a surprise: wealth is power, and power corrupts. And indeed the wealthy do seem to be a major subset if not an outright majority of the powerful — naturally enough, come to think of it, since one of the first signs of being corrupted by power is to start using that power to increase one’s wealth, and that (as we now know) sets off a vicious cycle: increasing wealth results in decreasing moral and ethical standards, which leads to more political and personal corruption, bringing in yet more money/wealth, and that further lowers one’s moral and ethical standards, repeat until it blows up, often fairly quickly.

I can think of governments on every continent that have exemplified this cycle, some very exactly.

So the study findings merely provide experimental verification of a fact long since known — and about which God Himself quite explicitly warned us. The detrimental effects of wealth on a person’s character is observed repeatedly and is evident to any student of history. It’s a sad cycle, but it seems to be inescapable because of the self-reinforcing nature: the further it goes, the faster it goes — thus the short life spans, I imagine (though “short” is relative: both Hitler and Stalin were around far too long).

This process of the positive feedback loop of wealth and moral corruption is so common it needs a name, like (for example) the Carnot cycle in engineering. Certainly this cycle — rags to riches to rags/death — is reliable in that the same sequence is repeated across a wide range of cultures and epochs and on a range of scales: individual, family, tribe/corportation, nation. The wealth/corruption cycle seems to be based on basic human responses and predilections and catches us in a self-reinforcing trap, much as modern manufactured foods exploit our natural predilections for (say) salt, sugar, and fat to make us fast-food addicts.

You know, I bet it would be very easy to construct a finite Markov chain of this process.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that some readers might disagree with the studies’ findings, arguing that the findings are false. They can look upon the above as an attempt to refute the findings by exploring the logical consequences, hoping for a reductio ad absurdum. But so far the thing seems to pan out and be consistent with what we observe. The things we see happening and having happened would follow inexorably upon the truth of the findings, and lo! there they are. No reductio here.

Update 15 Dec 2019: The article “How a Society Dies” sets out in grim terms the endgame. And the news article “Purdue Pharma Payments to Sackler Family Soared Amid Opioid Crisis” provides a good example of the wealth/corruption cycle and serves also as a reminder that it’s not just the wealthy who are thereby damaged: “Suicide, opioids tied to ongoing fall in US life expectancy: Third year of drop.” [And the Sacklers are doing everything in their power to cling to their ill-gotten gains. They lack shame as well as empathy, though they are abundantly supplied with greed.]

Update Easter Sunday (4/4) 2021: Michael Mechanic has an excellent article on this topic in the Atlantic. Do read the whole thing. Here’s just a part of it:

Piff’s popular TED Talk, “Does Money Make You Mean?” But his observations were consistent with a large body of social science finding that people of higher socioeconomic status, compared with those lower down the ladder, are more prone to entitlement and narcissistic behavior. Wealthier subjects also tend to be more self-oriented and more willing to behave unethically in their own self-interest (to lie during negotiations, say, or to steal from an employer). In one study, Piff and his colleagues stationed a pedestrian at the edge of a busy crosswalk and watched to see which cars would let the person cross. Suffice it to say that Fords and Subarus were far more likely to stop than Mercedeses and BMWs.

We find such research amusing because it jibes with our stereotypes of rich people. But there’s nothing frivolous about asking how having an abundance of money affects our psychology. After all, the ranks of the rich, and the wealth they command, have exploded in the United States since the end of the Great Recession. Not even a pandemic could stop this avalanche of assets. The ultrawealthy—Americans with $30 million and up—suffered a brief setback, but by September 2020 the markets had rebounded and the rich were very nearly whole again. Even as the poor and middle class reeled from job losses and the threat of evictions and foreclosures, scores of new billionaires were minted.

Early in his career, Piff had observed that people were studying the causes and effects of poverty ad nauseam, but nobody was addressing the questions he wanted to ask. Namely: What are the social and psychological ramifications of being on top of the economic food chain, of occupying positions of privilege? Wealth-related differences in attitudes and behavior are particularly important wherever the rich have an outsize sway over politics and policy. If, for instance, wealth makes people less compassionate, then a government that believes that the rich should behave in the interests of the populace may have to force them to do so.

Political scientists such as Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens have found notable differences in the policy preferences of affluent versus middle-class Americans, not only on purely economic matters like taxation but also on public-education funding, racial equity, and environmental protections, all of which the rich have been significantly less likely to support. This matters because of the influence the rich have over government officials. In one study, Gilens, now a professor at UCLA, combed through thousands of public survey responses and discovered that, on issues where the views of wealthy voters diverged significantly from those of the rest of the populace, the policies ultimately put in place “strongly” reflected the desires of the most affluent respondents—the top-earning 10 percent. Those policies, the study concluded, bore “virtually no relationship to the preferences” of poorer Americans.

Wealthy people are less likely than poor ones, in lab settings at least, to relate to the suffering of others. When people experience compassion, it turns out, our hearts actually slow down. In 2012, Piff’s then-colleagues Michael Kraus and Jennifer Stellar hooked volunteers up to ECG machines and showed them two short videos: a “neutral” video of a woman explaining how to construct a patio wall and a “compassion” video of children receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Relative to the wealthier participants, the poorer ones not only reported feeling greater compassion for the kids but also exhibited a significantly larger slowdown in heart rate from one video to the next.

If affluent people are less moved by the suffering of others, they should be less likely to help those in need, and this too seems to be true both in the lab and outside it. While wealthy families donate significantly more money to charity on average than poor families do, they tend to give away a smaller share of their income. “As wealth goes up, the stinginess seems to increase,” Piff said.

Raymond Fisman, a behavioral economist at Boston University, has found that . . .

Update 24 Aug 2021: And see also “How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel.”

Written by Leisureguy

25 March 2012 at 1:43 pm

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