Who is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal—the poor person or the rich one? 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.
Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner ran several studies looking at whether social class (as measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) influences how much we care about the feelings of others. In one study, Piff and his colleagues discreetly observed the behavior of drivers at a busy four-way intersection. 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 pedestrian.
In order to figure out whether selfishness leads to wealth (rather than vice versa), Piff and his colleagues ran a study where they manipulated people’s class feelings. The researchers asked participants to spend a few minutes comparing themselves either to people better off or worse off than themselves financially. 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.
A related set of studies published by Keltner and his colleagues last year looked at how social class influences feelings of compassion towards people who are suffering. 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, “I often notice people who need help,” and “It’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable.” This was true even after controlling for other factors that we know affect compassionate feelings, such as gender, ethnicity, and spiritual beliefs.
In a second study, participants were asked to watch two videos while having their heart rate monitored. One video showed somebody explaining how to build a patio. The other showed children who were suffering from cancer. After watching the videos, participants indicated how much compassion they felt while watching either video. 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.
These findings build upon previous research showing how upper class individuals are worse at recognizing the emotions of others and less likely to pay attention to people they are interacting with (e.g. by checking their cell phones or doodling).
But why would wealth and status decrease our feelings of compassion for others? After all, it seems more likely that having few resources would lead to selfishness. 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.
Given the growing income inequality in the United States, the relationship between wealth and compassion has important implications. Those who hold most of the power in this country, political and otherwise, tend to come from privileged backgrounds. If social class influences how much we care about others, then the most powerful among us may be the least likely to make decisions that help the needy and the poor. 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.