Political divisions mirror the economic chasm. The solution to America’s $15 trillion debt is either “cut spending” or “raise taxes,” a polarity of world views that has led social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt to seek out the roots of those moral prejudices. When Mitt Romney, one of the richest men ever to run for president, fails to convincingly relish his “cheesy grits,” it is taken by critics as evidence that he is too out of touch to steward the economy to all citizens’ benefit—just as the fortune he amassed in private equity is proof to his supporters of his acumen as a leader of men.
Americans across the board can have a high tolerance for inequality if they believe it is meritocratic. The research by Piff and his colleagues points to a different possible explanation for the income gap: that it may be at least in part psychologically destined. This in turn raises the ancient conundrum of chicken and egg. If getting or having money can make you hard-hearted, do you also have to be hard-hearted to become well-off in the first place? The bulk of the new research points decisively in the direction of the former, says Kraus, who now works at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. “Just the idea of holding money can make people selfish.” Data on the temperament factor lag far behind, partly because temperament is an even more slippery variable than money when it comes to designing a sound study. “It has something to do with how you grew up; it has something to do with your genes too. It has something to with the behaviors that lead you to get raises,” Kraus says. (It also has something to do with social status. The biggest predictor of personal prosperity is your parents’ income level, and only 16 percent of people in the lowest income bracket move to the middle or above in ten years, according to the Economic Policy Institute.)
T. Byram Karasu, a psychiatrist at Albert Einstein/Montefiore Medical Center who treats wealthy clients, believes all very successful people share certain fundamental character traits. They have above-average intelligence, street smarts, and a high tolerance for anxiety. “They are sexual and aggressive,” he says. “They are also competitive with anyone and have no fear of confrontations; in fact, they thrive on them. And in contrast to their image, they are not extroverted. They become charmingly engaging when needed, but in their private world, they are private people.” They are, in the parlance, all business.
Earlier this year, researchers led by Timothy Judge at Notre Dame went some way toward proving Karasu’s observation when they published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Do Nice Guys—And Gals—Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income.” The paper explored, in part, the financial penalties that women suffer in the workplace for being perceived as pushovers. But it also found a strong correlation, especially dramatic in men, between disagreeableness and income. Subjects were asked to assess whether they had a forgiving nature or found fault with others, whether they were trusting, cold, considerate, or cooperative. Then they were given an agreeableness score. Men with the lowest agreeableness earned $42,113 in a given year; those with the highest agreeableness earned $31,259. Disagreeableness was also correlated to job responsibility and recommendations for the management track. This seeming correlation between money and insensitivity perpetuates itself, says Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “You’re reminded of money, and you act like a jerk. People don’t like you, and you’re reminded of money more.”
Piff’s most notorious research seemed to demonstrate the extent to which people with money behave as if the world revolves around them. Last year, he spent three months hanging out at the intersection of Interstate 80 and Lincoln Highway, near the Berkeley Marina. It’s a gritty, busy corner with a four-way stop that might be anywhere, if “anywhere” were in Northern California. On the brilliant day that I visited this spring, purple wildflowers were clustered along the highway’s shoulder, and a bike path meandered through them. Piff and his research team would stake out the intersection at rush hour, crouching behind a bank of shrubs near the Sea Breeze Market and Deli, and catalogue the cars that came by, giving each vehicle a grade from one to five. (Five would be a new-model Mercedes, say, and one would be an old, battered Honda like the one Piff drives.) Then the researchers would observe the drivers’ behavior. A third of people who drove grade-five cars, Piff found, rolled into the intersection without first coming to a complete stop—a violation, he reminds readers in his PNAS study, of the California Vehicle Code. “Upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex, and amount of traffic.” When Piff designed a similar experiment to test drivers’ regard for pedestrians, in which a researcher would enter a zebra crossing as a car approached it, the results were more staggering. Like New Yorkers rushing past that stroller mom on their way to work, fully half the grade-five cars cruised right into the crosswalk. “It’s like they didn’t even see them,” Piff told me.