Feb 19, 2012 4:36 PM GMT
From The Boston Globe:
Science is finding that money actually changes how you think and act—and not for the better
As the presidential primary race has unfolded over the last few months, curious Americans have angled for a look at the candidates’ wallets—and observed that they are bulging. There’s Newt Gingrich, with his $7 million fortune and an up to $1 million revolving line of credit at Tiffany. The relentlessly anti-elitist Rick Santorum disclosed last week that he earns roughly $1 million a year. Mitt Romney built an immense $200 million fortune through his “corporate raider” work at Bain Capital; even Ron Paul, who claimed in one debate that he was embarrassed to show his tax forms because he made so much less money than his rivals, is worth as much as $5.2 million.
This striking wealth among politicians goes beyond the GOP. One of these four men will face off against the now wealthy Barack Obama, whose book royalties alone ran to $2.5 million in 2008. Beyond the Oval Office, there’s Congress, whose members have a median net worth of $913,000, compared with $100,000 for the rest of us, according to a recent New York Times report. (Massachusetts’ own John Kerry is one leader of the pack, with a fortune that in 2009 was estimated at $167 million.)
Politicians would like us to believe that all this money doesn’t matter in a deeper sense—that what matters is ideas, skills, and leadership ability. Aside from a little extra business savvy, they’re regular people just like the rest of us: They just happen to have more money.
But is that true? In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.
As voters consider which presidential candidate to support in November, one thing is for sure: Whoever wins is going to have money and power to spare. In a world where our politicians are inevitably better off than most of the people they govern, the new research sheds fresh light on the nature of our elected leaders—and offers insight into why they so often seem oblivious to our problems. And, given that some of us may one day build a successful business or win the lottery, it also begins to offer some hints of how we might face down the corrupting influence of wealth and power ourselves.
HERE IN THE home of the American dream, most people are convinced that gaining a lot of money or changing social status abruptly wouldn’t change who they are as people. Think about all the books, movies, and TV shows where a poor or middle-class person is suddenly elevated to a high position. Typically, his basic humility and decency shine through the trappings of power: “The Prince and the Pauper,” Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” John Goodman in “King Ralph.”
Psychology has now found ways to test that narrative, however, and basic decency is not coming out on top. There are two ways to gauge the difference between how wealthy and nonwealthy people think: You can make people temporarily feel rich (or prompt them to think about money) and see if that creates changes, or you can sample rich and nonrich people and see if they think differently to begin with. Both kinds of studies yield results that point in the same somewhat disturbing direction.
Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, started working on the issue of “feeling rich” in 2006 along with coauthors Nicole Mead and Miranda Goode. In their research, subjects were given subliminal suggestions to think about money—a clue in a descrambling puzzle, a dollar-bill screensaver on a computer screen, a sheaf of Monopoly bills on a table—before being asked to make a number of decisions: How soon do you ask for help on an impossible drawing task? Do you help the clumsy lab assistant who just dropped all her pencils? Do you donate to a made-up charity? Do you choose to work in a team or alone?
The mere hint of money, the researchers found, made people less likely to ask for help, less helpful in gathering the lab assistant’s pencils, significantly less generous to the made-up charity, and far less likely to look for teammates. “When people are reminded of money, they get better at pursing their personal goals,” Vohs said. “On the negative side, they become poor at interpersonal functioning. They’re not all that nice to be around. They’re not openly mean or disagreeable, but they can be insensitive.”
Insensitivity can cover a range of sins, from the minor (being unhelpful) to the more serious—say, treating others like they are less than human. Further studies by Vohs and her colleagues have shown that prompting people to think about money—a technique known as “priming”—makes them less likeable and friendly, and more likely to agree with statements that support an unjust, social-Darwinist status quo (for example, “Some groups of people are simply inferior to others”). In a particularly disturbing part of one study, the team primed people with money, then gauged their empathy by eliciting reactions to a theoretical scenario involving a belligerent homeless person. The researchers offered the subjects a chance to agree with statements that dehumanized others (“Some people deserve to be treated like animals”). The money-primed group was more likely to agree.
Vohs and her collaborators have proposed a number of explanations for this effect. Adam Waytz, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and a coauthor on the dehumanization study, describes the energy that fuels altruism as a “finite resource”—one that you tap only when you’re worried about your own needs in turn. “What money does...is, it obviates the need for others,” Waytz said. “When you have feelings of security, there’s no extra motivation to spend your resources for compassion on other people.”
The prompts to think of money in Vohs’s experiments are meant to approximate the reassuring effect of wealth, permitting her team to test those primed to think of money against those who haven’t been. What about people who are actually rich, and not just prompted to think about wealth in a lab? Other psychologists, like one team associated with the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, have conducted experiments that measure responses in people based on their actual affluence—and have found closely complementary results.
In 2009, Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Dacher Keltner, all then of Berkeley (Kraus is now at University of California, San Francisco), published research that divided up sample groups by family income as well as self-reported socioeconomic status. People of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to explain success or failure as a result of individual merit or fault; lower-class people, on the other hand, felt less control in their own lives and were more likely to blame events on circumstance. In other words, higher-status people were more likely to feel that they’d earned their high place in society, and that poorer people hadn’t.