Science Closes In On the Reason Rich People Are Jerks

A few weeks ago when I blogged about a social-psych study that found people have more empathy when they feel low in status, I wasn't aware how much work is being done on the rich-asshole problem in social science.

A few weeks ago when I blogged about a social-psych study that found people have more empathy when they feel low in status, I wasn't aware how much work is being done in other fields on the rich-asshole problem in social science. Earlier this month, for example, the evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson reported a very similar finding. Wilson's student Dan O'Brien was researching cooperative behavior in a local primate species called the Binghamton, N.Y. high-school student. The higher a neighborhood's median income, O'Brien found, the less cooperative were its teen-agers.


It's always worth noting when researchers using different methods and theories get similar findings about people. My earlier post was about social psychologists who were trying to measure empathy. O'Brien used a technique from experimental economics: He had the kids play a game in which cooperation is better than betrayal, but only if your partner keeps faith. Reactions to these games vary a lot from culture to culture around the world. Amazingly, in Binghamton, N.Y., they vary in a similar way from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Wilson says he was surprised that income would correlate negatively with niceness, but, on reflection, it made sense in light of another project he's involved with: It's called "Design Your Own Park," and it engages neighbors to band together and take over a vacant lot, transforming it into a nice park. "Some of the people in low-income neighborhoods are the most amazing networkers that I have ever seen," Wilson writes. On the other hand, "some of the so-called 'nicer' neighborhoods are sadly inert. Each family keeps a tidy home and lawn and doesn’t make trouble for the others, but positive social connections are almost non-existent."

The fact that cooperativeness varies from culture to culture, Wilson writes, suggests an explanation: Human nature doesn't have a single default setting for helpfulness and respect. Instead, we have the capacity to learn how trusting, how open, and how generous to be with others. If you hunt whales in a tightly cooperating team, you learn to cooperate readily. If you farm a hardscrabble patch of dirt with only your near relatives to help, you're much more likely to want to screw over your fellow man.

Mapping this onto our class structure, Wilson suggests that the comforts of affluence are atrophying people's propensity to band with others to work for the common good. If you don't practice this social skill, he argues, it will go away. "Those of us who can pay with our credit cards don’t need to cooperate," he writes, "and so we forget how."

That notion is consistent with another finding, from yet another discipline, which I didn't know about when I wrote about the social psychologists. It seems there's an association between spending money on one's self and selfish conduct, and it doesn't require actual spending. In this 2009 paper Roy Y.J. Chua and Xi Zou, both professors of management, found that just getting people to think about that kind of spending was sufficient to make their decisions more selfish.

The pair showed 87 university students pictures of shoes and watches and had them complete a survey about the products. Then they answered questions about how they would behave as a chief executive in each of three hypothetical business decisions. Half the group had seen pictures of simple, functional shoes and watches. The others had viewed, and then described, top-end luxury goods.

Those who saw the luxury versions were significantly more likely to choose the selfish path in the business decisions. They were more inclined to OK the production of a car that would pollute the environment, the release of bug-riddled software, and the marketing of a videogame that would prompt kids to bash each other. That suggests, write Chua and Zou, that "mere exposure to luxury caused people to think more about themselves than others."

Do many years of such exposure make us forget how to cooperate for good, as Wilson suggests? Maybe. But maybe there's a bit more innate flexibility in the human psyche. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more people are volunteering in community organizations across the United States since the economic crisis began. That hints that when people have forgotten how to cooperate, they can remember—if someone just takes the money away.

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