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The Money-Empathy Gap

The corollaries to this poverty work are potentially explosive: Wealth may give you a better brain. It may make you a more strategic thinker, a savvier planner. (Research has shown that the more a ­person is able to imagine himself in the future, the more cash he is likely to have in his savings account.) And the cognitive benefits of affluence may accrue incrementally, speculates Dovidio, so that very rich people have better brain functioning than moderately rich people. These hypotheses are at the untested frontier of the new science: “I think in ten years we’ll have a compelling story on this,” says Dacher Keltner, the psychologist who oversees the work of Piff and his colleagues. But already the outline is becoming clear. Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir has shown that in environments of abundance, people make better financial decisions—it’s not that rich people tend to be better educated and can afford better advice, but that people living paycheck to paycheck don’t have the mental space to make the smartest long-term moves. The efficiencies of the affluent brain may trigger the shutting down of what the researchers call “pro-social” impulses and lead people toward the kinds of behaviors that a hedge-fund manager I spoke to characterized as “ruthless.” “They’re more willing to hurt others in their quest for money,” he said. “When you look at people who’ve done exceptionally well, it tends to be the difficult people.”

Last fall, another of Keltner’s students, a 27-year-old named Jennifer Stellar, made headlines. She tested the correlation ­between social class and compassion, using physiology, not behavior, as her measure. First, Stellar asked 65 Berkeley under­graduates to fill out questionnaires describing their family education and income levels. Then she hooked up each subject to a heart-rate monitor and showed him a pair of short videos: an instructional clip about how to build a backyard deck (this was the control) and an advertisement for St. Jude’s hospital, a facility that specializes in treating children with cancer. The ad shows young kids with chemotherapy-bald heads submitting to medical tests as if they were everyday occurrences, while their devastated parents try to be brave. It is, in nontechnical terms, a tearjerker.

In postscreening interviews, all the subjects said they found the St. Jude’s video moving. But compassion can also be empirically measured, because it manifests in facial expressions and a slowing of the heart rate. Looking at the data from the heart monitors, Stellar found a direct, negative correlation in biological terms between class and compassion. “Lower-class individuals showed greater heart-rate deceleration in response to the suffering of others,” Stellar wrote. The heart rates of the upper-class subjects generally did not change. When I met her, Stellar was careful, like Vohs, to stress that this upper-class numbness was not intentional. “It’s not, ‘I can see you’re suffering. I can tell. But I don’t care,’ ” she explains. “They’re just not attuned to it.”

The aforementioned research seems to show that getting money and having money makes people selfish and anti­social. But it also appears to be true that selfish, antisocial people are the ones that ascend. And that is, in part, because rich or striving people tend to pass on their values and priorities to their children, as all parents do. Members of the lower and upper classes usually date and marry within their own ranks and “live in neighborhoods and attend schools and work with individuals who share similar levels of educational training and income,” write Kraus and his co-authors in their forthcoming article. And so the values of each group become both more and more clearly entrenched and incomprehensible to the other. “Parents in ­working-class contexts are relatively more likely to stress to their children that ‘It’s not just about you’ and to emphasize that although it is important to be strong and to stand up for oneself, it is also essential to be aware of the needs of others and to adhere to socially accepted rules and standards for behavior,” wrote a team led by Nicole Stephens, with Stanford University psychologist Hazel Markus, in 2007 in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Parents with higher incomes “more often tell their children that ‘It’s your world’ and emphasize the value of promoting oneself and developing one’s own interests.” The cries of “Go get ’em!” you hear in the playgrounds and on the baseball diamonds of America’s best neighborhoods reflect not just concern for children’s self-esteem but a worldview that emphasizes looking out for No. 1.

This is Markus’s main research interest: the mind-sets of class. She and her colleagues have found, broadly speaking, that the affluent value individuality—uniqueness, differentiation, achievement—whereas people lower down on the ladder tend to stress homogeneity, harmonious interpersonal relationships, and group affiliation. In 2005, Markus co-authored a paper that showed those with only a high-school education like country music for its message of group coherence, while those with college educations like indie music because it emphasizes personal uniqueness. In her 2007 paper, Stephens found this same variance in self-image by testing people’s preferences in ballpoint pens. She divided her subjects into two groups of lower and higher incomes and showed each subject five pens and asked him to choose one. The pens were identical and were widely considered to be good, even desirable. The only difference among them was their color. Three pens in the handful would be one color (say, green); two would be another (orange). In the test, lower-class people overwhelmingly chose the green pens, whereas higher-class people picked the less common color. ­Lower-class people wanted to be the same as their peers, whereas ­better-off subjects showed, Stephens wrote, “a preference for uniqueness and individuation.”