It’s been established that the wealthy are less ethical than the non-wealthy, and now we find they are also less empathetic
Of course, one might wonder whether the lack of ethics and empathy assists with the accumulation of wealth—those without ethics and empathy are more willing to ride roughshod over their fellows—but in her Washington Post article Karen Weese cites research that indicates that wealth that damages ethics and empathy (probably why Jesus warned so strongly against wealth, a warning that many Christians routinely ignore, just as they ignore His strong condemnation of divorce).
I was polishing off some pancakes at Denny’s with a friend when our waitress dropped off the check. We paid the $11 bill, and my friend tossed a $5 tip on the table.
I tried not to look surprised. My friend worked as a caregiver and was raising two kids on less than $19,000 a year.
She read my face. “Look at her,” she said, cocking her head at our waitress, who was visibly pregnant and speed-walking from table to table with laden platters in the busy restaurant. “She’s been on her feet for probably six hours already and has three more to go, she’s got a baby on the way, you know she’s exhausted, and somehow she still took great care of us like she’s supposed to. She needs it more than I do.”
I felt my face turn red. I could afford an extra $5. Why hadn’t I thought of that? “You are something else,” I said finally.
“Nah,” she demurred. “But I used to be her, you know? So I know how it is. Besides, karma’s a b—- and you can never be too careful.” She winked and reached for her keys. “Ready to go?”
There’s little question that people find it easier to give when they see something of themselves in the recipient. It’s what motivates families of cancer survivors to participate so eagerly in fundraising walks and why my friend at Denny’s gave so readily to our waitress. It’s also why hedge fund manager John Paulson gave $400 million last year to Harvard University, his alma mater, and not to, say, Habitat for Humanity.
Proximity plays a role, too. We give more easily to the people and causes we see, often regardless of the magnitude of the need. Americans gave nearly $1 billion more to the approximately 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks than they gave to victims of the South Asian tsunami three years later, even though the latter tragedy killed more than a quarter of a million people. A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that affluent people in homogeneously wealthy Zip codes are less generous than equally affluent people in mixed-income communities. If you never see a homeless person or a trailer park, it’s easier to forget they exist.
But a lot of it comes down to the sheer capacity for empathy — and it turns out that some people have more of it than others.
When shown photos of human faces with different expressions, lower-income subjects are better than their more affluent counterparts at identifying the emotions correctly, according to a study by Yale professor Michael Kraus. (This makes some intuitive sense — if keeping your job depends on reading your customers’ emotions, you’ll probably get good at it.) When University of California psychology professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner recorded behavior at four-way stop signs, they found that the drivers of Toyotas and other inexpensive cars were four times less likely to cut off other drivers than the people steering BMWs and other high-end cars. In a related experiment, drivers of more modest cars were more likely to respect the right-of-way of pedestrians in a crosswalk, while half the drivers of high-end cars motored right past them. In other experiments, lower-income subjects were less likely than higher-income individuals to cheat, lie and help themselves to a jar of candy meant for kids.
Strangely, even just thinking about money can make people act more selfishly. When University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Vohs primed study participants with images of money (showing them screensavers depicting floating cash, or asking them to unscramble lists of words that included terms like “cash” and “bill”), they were less likely to give money to a hypothetical charity. And when a research assistant dropped a box of pencils on the floor right beside them (pretending it was an accident), the money-primed subjects were less willing to help pick them up.
Does this mean wealthier people are inherently more selfish and self-absorbed, and lower-income people inherently more generous and empathetic? Or did being rich or poor make them that way?
There is “an obvious chicken-and-egg question to ask here,” Michael Lewis wrote in the New Republic in 2014. “But it is beginning to seem that the problem isn’t that the kind of people who wind up on the pleasant side of inequality suffer from some moral disability that gives them a market edge. The problem is caused by the inequality itself: It triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains.”
Indeed, when University of North Carolina researcher Keely Muscatellshowed high- and low-income subjects photos of human faces with accompanying personal stories, the brains of the low-income subjects demonstrated much more activity in the areas associated with empathy than the rich subjects’ brains.
Similarly, when University of Toronto researcher Jennifer Stellar showedvideos of children at St. Jude’s hospital bravely undergoing medical procedures, lower-income viewers exhibited more heart-rate deceleration — which scientists use as a measure of compassion — than their higher-income counterparts.
This is, of course, not good news for a society with an inequality problem. If being richer makes people less empathetic toward the struggles of others, the people with the most power and resources will be the least inclined to help. And this seems to actually be the case: A 2014 study of Congress members found that while Republican lawmakers favored the same economic policies regardless of their personal wealth, Democratic legislators’ support for certain policies rose or fell in line with their bank accounts. Richer Democrats were more likely to favor lower taxes on the wealthy and decreased business regulation, while relatively poorer Democrats were more likely to support legislation to make college more affordable or increase the minimum wage.
But there are some positive findings. . .
I included this in the “mental health” category because a lack of empathy does seem to be a problem.