by Daisy Grewal
It’s temping to think that the wealthier
you are, the more likely you are to act fairly. After all, if you
already have enough for yourself, it’s easier to think about what
others may need. But research suggests the opposite is true: as
people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards
other people decline.
They found that luxury car drivers were more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting for their turn at the intersection.
This was true for both men and women
upper-class drivers, regardless of the time of day or the amount of
traffic at the intersection. In a different study they found that
luxury car drivers were also more likely to speed past a pedestrian
trying to use a crosswalk, even after making eye contact with the
Afterwards, participants were shown a
jar of candy and told that they could take home as much as they
wanted. They were also told that the leftover candy would be given
to children in a nearby laboratory. Those participants who had spent
time thinking about how much better off they were compared to others
ended up taking significantly more candy for themselves - leaving
less behind for the children.
In one study, they found that less affluent individuals are more likely to report feeling compassion towards others on a regular basis.
For example, they are more likely to agree with statements such as,
This was true even after controlling for
other factors that we know affect compassionate feelings, such as
gender, ethnicity, and spiritual beliefs.
Social class was measured by asking participants questions about their family’s level of income and education.
The results of the study showed that
participants on the lower end of the spectrum, with less income and
education, were more likely to report feeling compassion while
watching the video of the cancer patients. In addition, their heart
rates slowed down while watching the cancer video - a response that
is associated with paying greater attention to the feelings and
motivations of others.
Piff and his colleagues suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused. Another reason has to do with our attitudes towards greed.
Like Gordon Gekko, upper-class people may be more likely to endorse the idea that “greed is good.” Piff and his colleagues found that wealthier people are more likely to agree with statements that greed is justified, beneficial, and morally defensible.
These attitudes ended up predicting
participants’ likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior.
They may also be the most likely to engage in unethical behavior.
Keltner and Piff recently speculated in the New York Times about how their research helps explain why Goldman Sachs and other high-powered financial corporations are breeding grounds for greedy behavior.
Although greed is a universal human emotion, it may have the strongest pull over those of who already have the most.