Words by Paul Piff
For a moment, think about playing a game of Monopoly. Except this game's been rigged, and you've got the upper hand. You've got more money, more opportunities to move around the board, and more access to resources. How might that experience of being a privileged player in a rigged game change the way you think about yourself and regard that other player?
We ran a study to look at exactly that question. We brought in more than 100 pairs of strangers into the lab, and with the flip of a coin, randomly assigned one of the two to be a rich player in a rigged game.
One of the really interesting and dramatic patterns that we observed begin to emerge was that the rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person - less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success, more likely to showcase how well they're doing.
And they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation -- including that flip of a coin that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place.
What we've been finding is that as a person's levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases. It's actually wealthier individuals who are more likely to moralize greed being good, and that the pursuit of self-interest is favorable and moral.
We've run other studies finding that wealthier individuals are more likely to lie in negotiations, endorse unethical behavior at work like taking bribes and lying to customers.
I don't mean to suggest that it's only wealthy people who show these patterns of behavior. I think that we all, in our day-to-day, minute-by-minute lives, struggle with these competing motivations of when or if to put our own interests above the interests of other people. But what we're finding is that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to pursue a vision of personal success of achievement and accomplishment to the detriment of others around you.
We're at unprecedented levels of economic inequality. Economic inequality is something we should all be concerned about.
There's a lot of really compelling research showcasing the range of things that are undermined as economic inequality gets worse. Social mobility, physical health, social trust, all go down as inequality goes up. Similarly, things like violence, imprisonment and punishment, are exacerbated as economic inequality increases.
And if it's the case, as we've been finding, that the wealthier you are, the more entitled you feel to that wealth, and the more likely you are to prioritize your own interests above the interests of other people, well then there's no reason to think that those patterns will change.
This cascade of self-perpetuating, negative effects could seem like something that's spun out of control, and there's nothing we can do about it. But we've been finding that small psychological interventions, small changes to people's values can restore levels of egalitarianism and empathy.
In one study, we had people watch a brief video about childhood poverty that served as a reminder of the needs of others in the world around them. We looked at how willing people were to offer up their own time to a stranger who was in distress. After watching this video, rich people became just as generous of their own time to help out this stranger as someone who's poor, suggesting that these differences are not innate or categorical, but are so malleable to slight changes in people's values, and little nudges of compassion and bumps of empathy.
Humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.