Does Wealth Reduce Compassion?
|September 7, 2012||Posted by Roshawn Watson under Personal Finance, psychology|
Most of us are familiar with Scrooge, the wealthy businessman who is high on ambition but short on compassion. Unfortunately, Scrooge isn’t a fictional anomaly; businessmen are frequently depicted negatively in Hollywood. Michael Medved found that since 1970, businessmen have been portrayed as “villains” twice as often as “good guys.” Could there be a legitimate reason for this depiction? If we are to believe one researcher’s assessment of recent data, the answer is YES! She concludes that wealth is inversely related to compassion: the more wealth one has, the less oriented towards others’ needs and feelings he will be. As with most data though, the devil is in the details. Let’s explore some recent findings and decide if they really indict the wealthy.
Fascinating Data Regarding Money and Compassion
The first studies the researcher cited were conducted by Berkeley psychologists, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner. These studies explored the prevalence of unethical behavior amongst people from “upper” and “lower” social classes. Social class was measured as a composite of (wealth, education, and income). The investigators measured the behavior of the 2 classes in various ethical situations and “found upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.” The psychologists also studied a busy four-way intersection and found that luxury car drivers were more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting for their turn at the intersection, regardless of gender, time of day, amount of traffic, or eye contact with pedestrians.
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Another series of studies cited by the author were done by Keltner and colleagues and explored the role of the environment and compassion and class. Social class was measured by asking participants questions about their family’s level of income and education. They found that the environments of lower-class individuals promoted greater concern for the pain or comfort of others. For example, less affluent individuals were more likely to report feeling compassion towards others on a regular basis. The less affluent would more frequently agree with the following statements: “I often notice people who need help,” and “it’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable;” these findings were independent of gender, ethnicity, spirituality, and other factors believed to influence compassion. Another study performed by the same team had subjects watch 2 videos and monitored their physiologic responses (i.e., heart rates). One of the videos was a compassion-inducing video (children with cancer). Subjects “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 (more frequently) slowed down while watching the cancer video—a response that is associated with paying greater attention to the feelings and motivations of others.”
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The Fallacy With that Data Interpretation
While the results are undoubtedly compelling, the biggest problem with concluding “wealth reduces compassion” from this research is that the studies cited do NOT evaluate wealth! Every study cited investigated “social class,” as measured by income, education, and luxury cars, NOT wealth. Even in the cases where wealth was considered a component of social class, it was part of a composite measure (lumped in with other factors) that was tested for a relationship with compassion rather than measured as an independent influencer of compassion. It would have been easy to look at wealth as an independent variable and test whether it directly caused diminished compassion or even was associated with less compassion. One must ask why wasn’t this done?
This may seem like splitting hairs, but the implications of are big. Extrapolating characteristics of the wealthy based on a biased and nonspecific variable, such as social class, can be troublesome and lead you to the wrong conclusions. One reason this occurs is because infinitely more difficult to build wealth, particularly lasting wealth, than it is to obtain a high income or high academic standing. Look no further than Evander Holyfield, who recently had a house go into foreclosure and a recent ex-wife filed for bankruptcy, or Mike Tyson who also filed bankruptcy after earning a whopping $300-$400 million throughout his professional boxing career. In both cases, their incomes were astronomical, but their wealth was fleeting. The same thing also happens on a daily basis to countless high income professionals. The financial courage, delayed gratification, and financial excellence required for most people to become and stay wealthy gives them distinct character attributes than most high-income earners.
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Simply stated, the income-statement affluent (high income earners without corresponding high net worth) and the balance-sheet affluent (high net worth individuals) are often not the same type of people. For example, they typically exhibit different spending orientations, savings and investing discipline, and overall lifestyle. Thus, wealth and class are not necessarily interchangeable. In fact, even the millionaire population is not homogenous. You will find great differences even among millionaires based on whether they favor luxury or more conservative brands (see Toyota Millionaires versus Mercedes Millionaires).
Thus, while one could certainly argue those with high social class, as assessed by the aforementioned variables, lack compassion relative to those with low social class, suggesting anything more seems like a stretch based on the data presented.
What About Inherent Character Flaws Independent of Wealth
Notwithstanding the flaws in the original conclusion by the commentator (not by the study authors), she does provide two reasons for why she believes “wealth” reduces compassion that warrant further exploration: independence and the “greed is good” philosophy. I find the independence rationale for lacking compassion fascinating. By definition, wealth makes you financially independent, which in turn means you are less beholden to your neighbors. Personally, I think independence is a GOOD thing. Independence is part of self-actualization, and according to the late Dr. Stephen Covey, marks an important state in our personal development. Moreover, I don’t want people being nice to me because of what they can get out of me or because I tell them false truths in a pathetic attempt to maintain their approval. Healthy relationships are not founded on leech-like or phony associations anyway. Thus, I question the harm in being financially independent, even if it means you do not have to play nice. If independence means you can be real, then I fail to see that as a bad thing.
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As far as embracing the “greed is good” philosophy, I think money only amplifies character traits and beliefs that are already present. In other words, if someone is rotten without money, she will be more rotten with money. The good fortune will only serve to make her a more exaggerated version of herself rather than change her altogether. Thus, how is wealth really the problem in itself? The greedy come in all shapes, sizes, and bank accounts. For example, some people piously claim to only want a little money for their families not realizing that this focus in itself is the embodiment of greed because they only care about themselves.
Money only amplifies character traits and beliefs that are already evident.
I am still convinced it is A LOT easier for most people to build significant wealth ethically by providing value to others through great service than by being greedy. Greed is rooted in the poverty mentality anyway: it is dominated by the fear of running out, which is not generally conducive to building wealth anyway. After all, it is hard to reap a significant harvest when you are afraid to sow into business and others.
Compassion is a good thing. I hope we all are moved by compassion, regardless of income, wealth, or social standing. Because wealth gets such a bad reputation, sometimes it is good to remember that wealth clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, builds hospitals for the sick, retires abused school bus monitors, and does a lot of other good in the world. If future data ultimately indicate that wealth DOES indeed decrease compassion, then so be it. However, until researchers evaluate a real wealthy population, allegations of reduced compassion among the wealthy is simply not supported by facts and is little more than popular sentiment.
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