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The Money-Empathy Gap

When was the last time, as Piff puts it, that you prioritized your own interests above the interests of other people? Was it yesterday, when you barked at the waitress for not delivering your cappuccino with sufficient promptness? Perhaps it was last week, when, late to work, you zoomed past a mom struggling with a stroller on the subway stairs and justified your heedlessness with a ruthless but inarguable arithmetic: Today, the 9 a.m. meeting has got to come first; that lady’s stroller can’t be my problem. Piff is one of a new generation of scientists—psychologists, economists, marketing professors, and neurobiologists—who are exploiting this moment of unprecedented income inequality to explore behaviors like those. As Piff’s colleague Michael Kraus explains in a forthcoming article co-­authored with Piff and three other scientists in Psychological Review, their focus is on “predictable social cognitive thought patterns and world views” of the people familiarly known as “the haves.” Their field is less than ten years old, and its conclusions are thus “incomplete,” says John Dovidio, a social psychologist at Yale. Money has a million symbolic meanings and reflects as many human yearnings; wanting it, getting it, having it, using it, and abusing it are entirely different impulses with entirely different effects on personality, behavior, and interpersonal relationships, and no single researcher has yet captured all of that nuance. But in a country that likes to think that class doesn’t matter, these social scientists are beginning to prove just how determinative money is.

This research is not intended to prosecute the one percent, those families with an average net worth of $14 million. Nor does it attempt to apply its conclusions about the selfishness and solipsism of a broad social stratum to every member within it: Gateses and Carnegies have obviously saved lives and edified generations, and one of the biggest predictors of a person’s inclination to donate to charity is how much money he has. But when the top fifth of American families have seen their incomes rise by 45 percent since 1979, whereas the bottom fifth has seen a decline of almost 11 percent, these ­researchers want to explore a timely question: How does living in an environment defined by individual achievement—­measured by money, privilege, and ­status—alter a person’s mental machinery to the point where he begins to see the people around him only as aids or obstacles to his own ambitions? Piff won’t name a tipping point after which the personality transformation kicks in, only that his studies of ethical behavior indicate a strong correlation between high socio­economic status and interpersonal dis­regard. It’s an “additive” effect; the fever line points straight up. “People higher up on the socioeconomic ladder are about three times more likely to cheat than people on the lower rungs,” he says. Piff’s research also suggests that people who yearn to be richer or more prominent make different choices than those more content with their present level of material comfort. No matter how much money you actually have, you’re likelier to behave unethically if you check the “agree” box next to the following statement: “In order to be a successful person in this society, it is important to make use of every opportunity.”

Unlike the discovery that the Earth is round or that lifesaving medicine can be made from mold, the results of this new field of inquiry hardly challenge human intuition. Philosophers and writers going back at least to Aristotle have had something to say about the potentially corrupting influence of wealth. Jesus warned that one might more easily push a camel through the eye of a needle than encounter a rich man in Heaven, and Dante designed the fourth ring of his Inferno for the greedy. Scrooge, Lily Bart, and ­Sherman McCoy are modernity’s Virgils, guides to the hell of living too much in money’s thrall. But science looks for solutions, and though affluence has been held up as a potential hazard to the soul, it has not in the United States been, empirically speaking, a problem. (The health and fortunes of the poor, by contrast, have been abundantly studied.) Rich people are thinner than poor people and have better cardiovascular health. They live longer. They’re better educated. They score higher on standardized tests. “They have more money,” as ­Ernest Hemingway was said to have quipped. Experiments over the past three years have shown that wealthier people suffer less from mood disorders than poorer people and that they have less cortisol in their saliva, a sign that they feel more impervious to threat.

But as the 2012 election approaches—an election framed more than most as a referendum on how much prosperity should be shared—those on opposite sides of the income spectrum appear not just different, but as alien tribes who have accidentally washed up on the same beach. The economic data are well known: The top 20 percent of Americans own about 87 percent of the wealth; the bottom 80 percent splits the rest. Social mobility, never as attainable as imagined, is stagnant. Forty percent of Americans inhabit the same social class as their grandparents, making the United States less socially mobile than Japan or France.