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The Money-Empathy Gap

In another experiment, Stephens presented firefighters and MBA students with the following hypothetical situation: “You just bought a new car, and then you find that your friend has purchased the exact same car. How do you feel?” The firefighters were overwhelmingly pleased and said things like, “Fantastic. He gets a great car.” The MBA students were negative or ­ambivalent. “I would feel slightly irritated,” one said. “It spoils my differentiation,” said another. (Madison Avenue discovered and manipulated this bifurcation in the American self-image long ago: When it sells trucks, the ads might show a parking lot full, pulled up at a multigenerational picnic, with slogans like “Take Family Time ­Further.” When it sells sports cars, the commercials show a car zooming down the highway alone. The slogan for the BMW M3 even nods in the direction of Piff’s discovery about the drivers of high-end cars and traffic rules: “Street Legal. Pretty Much.”)

The American Dream is really two dreams. There’s the Horatio Alger myth, in which a person with grit, ingenuity, and hard work succeeds and prospers. And there’s the firehouse dinner, the Fourth of July picnic, the common green, in which everyone gives a little so the group can get a lot. Markus’s work seems to suggest the emergence of a dream apartheid, wherein the upper class continues to chase a vision of personal success and everyone else lingers at a potluck complaining that the system is broken. (Research shows that the rich tend to blame individuals for their own failure and likewise credit themselves for their own success, whereas those in the lower classes find explanations for inequality in circumstances and events outside their control.) But the truth is much more nuanced. Every American, rich and poor, bounces back and forth between these two ideals of self, calibrating ambitions and adjusting behaviors accordingly. Nearly half of Americans between 18 and 29 believe that it’s “likely” they’ll get rich, according to Gallup—in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Those who have already gotten wealthy wrestle openly and with real anguish over how to raise children who are productive, community-minded, and hardworking. Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, made a documentary in 2003 called Born Rich and, since then, has become a kind of confessor to the anxious wealthy. “Everyone says, ‘I don’t want my kids to turn out to be the next Paris Hilton,’ ” says Johnson, “It’s weird. You know they want their kids to be superior. They want their kids’ lives to reflect the wealth and the position they have in society. But they don’t want their kids to be elitist and arrogant.”

Across the income and class spectrum, people confront these competing impulses day to day and even minute by minute. A friend of mine feels the conflict each time he’s heading home to downtown Manhattan after a weekend away. He’s an environmentally conscious, left-leaning thirtysomething who drives a 2008 diesel Volkswagen. (That’s a three on the Piff scale.) When he confronts the inevitable, mile-long backup on the FDR, near the exit by the Brooklyn Bridge, his first instinct, supported by his conscientious values learned over long years by parents who preached the Golden Rule, is to wait in line. He believes in traffic rules and in waiting one’s turn. He supports all the small, civic formalities that help to hold the community’s interest and general order over the chaos of every man for himself. But sometimes, he admits, he can’t help himself. “I think, What the hell? And I cut the line.”