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The Money-Empathy Gap

New research suggests that more money makes people act less human. Or at least less humane.

In a windowless room on the University of California, Berkeley, campus, two undergrads are playing a Monopoly game that one of them has no chance of winning. A team of psychologists has rigged it so that skill, brains, savvy, and luck—those ingredients that ineffably combine to create success in games as in life—have been made immaterial. Here, the only thing that matters is money.

One of the players, a brown-haired guy in a striped T-shirt, has been made “rich.” He got $2,000 from the Monopoly bank at the start of the game and receives $200 each time he passes Go. The second player, a chubby young man in glasses, is comparatively impoverished. He was given $1,000 at the start and collects $100 for passing Go. T-Shirt can roll two dice, but Glasses can only roll one, limiting how fast he can advance. The students play for fifteen minutes under the watchful eye of two video cameras, while down the hall in another windowless room, the researchers huddle around a computer screen, later recording in a giant spreadsheet the subjects’ every facial twitch and hand gesture.

T-Shirt isn’t just winning; he’s crushing Glasses. Initially, he reacted to the inequality between him and his opponent with a series of smirks, an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the inherent awkwardness of the situation. “Hey,” his expression seemed to say, “this is weird and unfair, but whatever.” Soon, though, as he whizzes around the board, purchasing properties and collecting rent, whatever discomfort he feels seems to dissipate. He’s a skinny kid, but he balloons in size, spreading his limbs toward the far ends of the table. He smacks his playing piece (in the experiment, the wealthy player gets the Rolls-Royce) as he makes the circuit—smack, smack, smack—­ending his turns with a board-shuddering bang! Four minutes in, he picks up Glasses’s piece, the little elf shoe, and moves it for him. As the game nears its finish, T-Shirt moves his Rolls faster. The taunting is over now: He’s all efficiency. He refuses to meet Glasses’s gaze. His expression is stone cold as he takes the loser’s cash.

For a long time, primatologists have known that chimpanzees will act out ­social dominance with a special ferociousness, slapping hands, stamping feet, or “charging back and forth and dragging huge branches,” as Jane Goodall once wrote. And sociologists and anthropologists have explored the effects of hierarchy in tribes and groups. But psychology has only recently begun seriously investigating how having money, that major marker of status in the modern world, ­affects psychosocial behavior in the species Homo sapiens. By making real people temporarily very affluent, without regard to their actual economic circumstances and within the controlled environment of a psych lab, the Berkeley researchers aim to demonstrate the potency of that one variable. “Putting someone in a role where they’re more privileged and have more power in a game makes them behave like people who actually do have more power, more money, and more status,” says Paul Piff, the psychologist who designed the experiment. The Monopoly results, based on a year of watching inequitable games between pairs like Glasses and T-Shirt, have not yet been ­released. But Piff believes that they will support and amplify his previous provocative research.

Earlier this year, Piff, who is 30, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that made him semi-famous. Titled “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” it showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people. It can make them more likely, as Piff demonstrated in one of his experiments, to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children. “While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff says, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

These findings, in combination with a researcher eager to promote them, reverberated online. On message boards, detractors accused Piff of using his lab to promote a leftist agenda; that his home base was Berkeley only fueled those ­suspicions. Piff’s e-mail box filled with messages calling him a “liberal idiot” and his work “junk science.” “I would wager,” says Wharton business-school psychologist Philip ­Tetlock, “that a congressional committee chair who favors redistribution of wealth would be far more likely to call these experts in as witnesses than would a committee chair who opposes redistribution.”

It is easy to see Piff’s research as ideologically motivated. The point is to “shed light on some of the consequences of social class,” he says. But whatever his goal, the “results are apolitical,” he says, and the data point in a clear direction. “Would I be less excited if we found that higher-status people were more generous?” he asks. “I’d probably be less excited, but that’s not what we found.”