Research confirms what the poor have always known about their relationship with the wealthy: They’re more likely to get a scavenged sandwich from a tramp than a nickel from a man in pinstripes. Wealth, at least in America today, reduces compassion and fosters selfishness, studies show.
The research gives weight to the claim that social class and its associated experiences are primary causes of the apparent greed and aggressive self-interest that many Americans seem to believe is an essential feature of human nature. —ARK
In one study, [University of California, Berkeley psychologist Paul] 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.