In the Case of Wealth v. Empathy

  • 082522
  • 3 minutes

For some, the stereotype is that well-to-do is synonymous with some level of indifference toward others. Think, uh, Downton Abbey. Or the entire course of history. Yet, is this just a recurring symptom of envy? Or is there something to it? And could we unconsciously be lending credence to that generalization?

A slew of recent studies points to a troubling conclusion: that the size of our bank accounts can, perhaps surprisingly, have a bearing on our ability to empathize. So how can such a vital, innate quality be diminished by a means of exchange? A familiar (often misquoted) adage proposes that the love of money is a force both misunderstood and underestimated.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Tian Dayton, acquiring money can become what's referred to as a process addiction: the compulsion to repeatedly engage in a specific behavior regardless of negative consequences. What's eerie about process addictions is that a person's brain chemistry changes in much the same way as it would with alcohol or drug use. Dr. Dayton explains that someone with a process addiction "has learned, albeit unconsciously, to manipulate his own brain chemistry."

The parallels don't end there. Just as a drug addict develops a tolerance for his drug of choice through use, the money addict will need to invest more time in his behaviors to achieve the same "high." And like any addiction, the need for it will lead to uncharacteristic risk-taking behavior, even sacrificing relationships or morals. Dr. Dayton writes that "eventually, the money addict can't really distinguish real love from the love he is able to purchase."

Even if money doesn't exert that authority in our lives, it can still influence how we view others. For example, research published in Psychological Science showed through three different experiments that lower-class participants consistently showed greater empathic accuracy—a metric used in psychology to measure how accurately a person can infer the thoughts and feelings of another. And an earlier study by the same researchers showed lower-class individuals to be more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. The abstract explains that their data "showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion."

But why would that be the case? Another expert suggests that money can corrupt our thinking. In a study by Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, participants played a game of Monopoly where one player started with twice as much money as his opponent, got twice as much each time he passed Go, and rolled two dice as opposed to just one for his opponent. Throughout the game, wealthier players tended to become louder and take up more space, even eating more pretzels from the bowls staged as part of the experiment. Interestingly, those players were almost twice as likely as poor players to suggest that strategy had had an impact on the game's outcome—that they had earned their win.

Of course, life is far more complex than a board game. Do these implications play out in real life? Well, yes, according to a handful of related but separate studies performed by researchers at UC Berkeley. These studies focused on individuals' behavior in a variety of settings, from negotiations in the workplace to driving in rush hour traffic. They found that upper-class drivers were four times more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection and three times more likely to cut off a pedestrian waiting to enter a crosswalk. Another experiment involved playing a computerized dice game in which the player with the highest score would receive a cash prize. Participants were unaware that the researchers rigged the game, preventing players from achieving anything above a specific score. Upper-class participants were more likely to claim a higher score than was possible, implying cheating. In every case, the data pointed to the same conclusion: unethical tendencies seemed to increase with a person's net worth.

So what gives? Kristin Smith-Crowe, one of the co-authors of a study demonstrating that the mere thought of money can distort a person's moral values, explains it this way: "Even if we are well intentioned, even if we think we know right from wrong, there may be factors influencing our decisions and behaviors that we're not aware of."

Maybe it's one of those unintended consequences—part of the trappings of capitalism. And perhaps that adage was on point: we seem to find the love of money at the heart of so many harmful and senseless things.

But the relationship between the amount of money a person has and their ability to show empathy isn't deterministic. Paul Piff, a social psychologist at Berkeley, explains that while more money can make someone more likely to be self-serving, "having money doesn't necessarily make anybody anything." We as humans are susceptible to money's corrupting influence, but its effects are not inevitable.

We can take this apparent correlation between increased wealth and diminished empathy as a cautionary datum. No one wants to be compassionless, but we're vulnerable to corruption in barely discernible ways. Acknowledging our natural human infirmities is a vital first step; identifying our personal threat vectors is perhaps more critical. Knowledge, as they say, is power.

Armed with such knowledge, we might choose never to allow our pursuit of wealth to degrade our compassion. If we catch ourselves on that path, let's employ the insight to recalibrate and continue living empathic lives. For us, a few things are inevitable: death, taxes and maybe an occasional binge affair with Downton Abbey. How about we keep it that way?

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