Does Wealth Rob the Brain of Compassion?

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Despite their progressive leanings, 80 percent of the Yale students were efficiency focused compared with 50 percent of a public sample.

These results “offer a potential new explanation for the muted policy response to increased income inequality in the United States,” the study authors wrote, because “the policymaking elite” are “far less inclined than is the general population to sacrifice efficiency to promote equality.”

Which brings us back to Monopoly. The most interesting part of the experiment, Piff said, came after, when players were asked to talk about what they had done to affect the game’s outcome. The obvious answer was that the fix was in and the rich player got lucky. But the rich players were almost twice as likely as the poor ones to talk about game strategy—how they’d earned their win. And so it goes in the world. Some of us are born better off than others, “but that’s not how people experience relative privilege or relative disadvantage,” Piff said. “What people do is attune to the things they’ve done: ‘I’ve worked hard. I worked hard in school.’ You start plucking out those things.”

Successful people tend to feel deserving of their lot. As a corollary, they tend to view less-fortunate people as having earned their lack of success. “So you’re more likely to make sense of inequality,” Piff explained, “to justify it, make inequality seem equitable.”

The psychologists Kraus and Keltner have found that people who rank themselves at the top of the social scale are significantly more likely to endorse essentialism, the notion that group characteristics are immutable and biologically determined—precisely the sort of beliefs used to justify the mistreatment of low-status groups such as immigrants and ethnic minorities. Countless studies, Kraus writes, point to an upper-class tendency toward “self-preservation.” That is, people who view themselves as superior in education, occupation, and assets are inclined to protect their group’s status at the expense of groups they deem less deserving: “These findings should call into question any beliefs in noblesse oblige—elevated rank does not appear to obligate wealthy individuals to do good for the benefit of society.”

A layperson perusing the literature on wealth and behavior might conclude that wealthy people are assholes, but that’s not really fair. “When I’m talking about these findings, it can just sound like flat-out rich-bashing, which I’m not interested in doing,” Piff said. One can be extraordinarily rich and not exhibit these patterns, or be quite poor and exhibit them. The effects that he and his colleagues describe are “small to medium,” and they are averages.

Further complicating our stereotypes is the fact that the most compassionate choice isn’t necessarily the best one. Wealthy subjects, regardless of politics, are prone to a more utilitarian mindset then their less-wealthy counterparts, which enables them, as Piff and his co-authors note in one paper, to “make dispassionate choices to serve the greater good that others might find quite difficult.” During a pandemic, for example, health authorities may have to weigh the likelihood that a given vaccine could severely harm a small number of recipients against the prospect that it could save millions of lives.

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