Are Wealthy People Less Compassionate?

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Attribution: Donna CameronSome time ago, I came across an article citing research that I found fascinating. I wanted to write about it in YOLK, but was deterred by a concern that it’s just one more thing that divides us . . . and there’s already way too much of that.

Still, I think it’s important information and perhaps if approached with curiosity and a desire to inspire change, instead of finger-pointing or rebuke, it might be beneficial rather than divisive.

U.C. Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner conducted several studies examining whether social class affects how people think about and treat others. They defined social class by such measurements as wealth, education, and professional prestige.

In one study, they observed motorists at four-way intersections and reported that drivers of luxury cars were more likely to cut off other drivers, rather than wait their turn at the intersection. Interestingly, I had noted this phenomenon first-hand several years ago when I traveled to California’s wealthy Marin County for a business conference (confession: I grew up in Marin, but escaped in my 20s). At a four-way stop in the affluent town of Mill Valley, my lowly rental Taurus was cut-off first by a Maserati and then by a Mercedes convertible. At another intersection, I stopped, but a Lamborghini breezed through the stop-sign as if it didn’t exist. Piff’s and Keltner’s research confirmed this behavior in luxury car drivers regardless of time of day or density of traffic. They also found that these drivers were more likely than others to ignore a pedestrian trying to cross at a crosswalk.

In a different, but equally fascinating study, these same researchers manipulated class feelings to examine selfish behaviors. They asked people to spend some time comparing themselves to others who were either better or worse off financially. Then they offered the subjects a jar of candy and told them they could take as much as they wanted and that the remainder would be given to nearby children. Interestingly, the participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were than others took significantly more candy than those who viewed themselves as less well-off.

Yet another study by the Berkeley researchers showed that people with lower income and education levels had more compassion for children being treated for cancer than did people at higher levels educationally and economically.

It’s hard to hear about studies such as these and not conclude that wealthy people have a rather warped sense of entitlement and privilege. In a New York Times article, Keltner and Piff postulated that their research may explain why elite financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, have been rife with greedy and unethical behaviors. Greed can become morally defensible for those who enjoy wealth and abundance. Further, according to the researchers, the less people have to worry about their own wealth and position, the less they think about others or care about the feelings of other people. “Wealth gives rise to a me-first mentality,” they concluded.

While it would seem logical that those who have little would be disinclined to give, the opposite seems to be the case. The disadvantaged give generously. And those who are prosperous seem less inclined to care about people who are less fortunate. Author Daisy Grewal notes that this is important because people in positions of power—political and economic power—tend to be these privileged wealthy who are not inclined to make decisions that help the poor or the marginalized members of society. Relying on those in power to care for the rest of us is probably a false hope. Greed, says Grewal, “may have the strongest pull over those who already have the most.”

I find this research fascinating. Having spent my career in the non-profit world, I saw abundant research showing that those most generous in donating to causes or supporting charitable endeavors were often those least able to afford it. On a percentage-of-income basis, those with lower incomes tended to be substantially more generous than those in the higher brackets.

Generalities are dangerous, though, and we must be careful not to make blanket statements or assumptions that serve only to widen the rift between those with privilege and those without, or between classes, cultures, or communities. There are enormously generous people with wealth and power (think Melinda and Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Lady Gaga, Paul Allen, and many more).

Recently, I found it eye-opening (but not surprising) that when presidential press secretary Sean Spicer left the White House, the parting comment for him was not a wish that he would find a new position that challenged and fulfilled him, or that he would find a new way to contribute to society, but that he would “make a tremendous amount of money.” Of course, what is to be expected from the administration of a president who has declared, “You have to be wealthy in order to be great” (as demonstrated so clearly by Gandhi and Mother Teresa…)?

It saddens me that for so many people, success and value—their own and others’—are measured only by wealth. You can’t be successful unless you make a lot of money. And for many, that translates to whatever you need to do to accumulate wealth is justified, because wealth is all that really matters.

Until collectively we can start measuring people by a new standard, it’s unlikely that the growing inequality we see will change. The question becomes: how do we change that standard? How do we stop seeing wealth—or lack of it—as a determiner of value, and see instead such factors as generosity, compassion, benevolence, action on behalf of others, and, yes, kindness? Given the current state of American politics, that change isn’t going to come anytime soon, but each of us can stand up for the values that we choose to be measured by.

We can stop admiring wealthy people just because they’re wealthy. We can stop publishing and reading articles about “the world’s richest people” or “how much do they earn” (how about articles on the most generous, or the most compassionate?). We can stop clicking on “news” that tells us about rich celebrities whose only claim to fame is their wealth and their celebrity. We can put our attention and our support—financial or otherwise—behind people and movements that seek positive change and promote values like equality, justice, and compassion. Where we put our attention should align with our intention.

Times change. People change. People can instigate change. What we’re seeing today doesn’t need to be what we see tomorrow.

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly, changing the world. How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make a contribution toward introducing justice straightaway. And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (Anne Frank)



22 thoughts on “Are Wealthy People Less Compassionate?

  1. Oh dear, what a well-informed & yet depressing post 😐. I can’t stand the direction the West is going in, particularly the USA, & here in Australia we’re not far behind… 😐

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that things look rather discouraging these days, but I’m also hopeful that enough people are waking to an awareness of where greed and inequity are leading us, that we might start to see some meaningful change. Sometimes it takes seeing ourselves at our worst to recognize the need for change. Sorry to hear that Australia is experiencing some of the same sorts of moral decline. In my mind, your country seemed to be one that has its act together! Thanks so much for commenting!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I respect your positive attitude; I just hope it’s not too late. And Australia is kinda hopeless in many ways: our indigenous people have a shockingly low life expectancy, & we don’t even have marriage equality!


  2. Great post Donna! I recently listened to a podcast on this very topic and they came to some different conclusions. I hope you don’t mind me sharing the link here:

    Also Donna, I’m pulling together a group of bloggers who write about self-improvement / personal development topics and I’m hoping you might join us. I don’t see how to contact you through your site. Am I missing the link? Or could you reach out to me through My Instruction Manual so I can send you more information?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Keith, and thanks for sending the link. For some reason, I was unable to access the audio, but I read the transcript of the podcast. Very interesting, and I think it’s a good reminder that studies such as these are complex and rife with variables that influence the outcomes. What I hope people will do when they read such research is not conclude that “all rich people are greedy” or “all poor people are generous,” but perhaps ask what assumptions we make about ourselves and about others . . . and whether generalities and labels are valid. And perhaps also ask why we are so often inclined to make choices and judge others on superficial and arbitrary measurements. If nothing else, we need to remind ourselves that blindly relying on our political leaders to solve the country’s complex problems is probably not a wise strategy. There are no simple answers . . . and if there were, they would likely be wrong. Thanks again, Keith!
      P.S. – there’s a “contact me” link on my home page, — under the monthly archives. Also one on my speaking page.


  3. There does seem to be some mileage in that theory. My own thoughts (for what they are worth) is that this often says quite a lot about how some people come to be affluent in the first place – perhaps a more mercenary and focused approach to gaining wealth and power, which naturally rubs off in all other areas of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think that’s a really important point, Mick, and one that’s probably a lot harder to study or measure. I wonder if wealthy people who are “self-made” have a different sense of entitlement than those who inherit their wealth. Also, there’s the question of whether wealth makes people greedy or greed makes people wealthy…? And, of course, it’s all generalities, so there will be plenty of exceptions to every conclusion. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!


  5. I wonder how much of this issue is essentially about a person’s base sense of entitlement, one not solely predicated on wealth. There seem to be far too many people — let me be specific: Americans — without much money who act selfishly, callously, without compassion towards others; the common factor among them is often race (white) and gender (male). Moreover, our consumerist culture encourages the worst in all people, whether well-off or poor (the image of brawling Black Friday shoppers springs to mind.)

    When it comes to actually being wealthy, yes, I believe that there’s often a notable difference between people who have had to work — hard — to make their money as opposed to the “born-with a-silver-spoon-in-their-mouths” set.

    Then there is the question of values: if a person’s self-worth is measured in money and material things, if their primary purpose in life is to accumulate riches, they are far more likely to view life as “dog-eat-dog” and only acknowledge (respect and/or envy) those who have the kind of $uccess they crave. A person with that sort of spirit-impoverished POV sees others as either useful pawns or useless obstacles in his world, nothing more. (Hm, I’m sure there’s a prominent jerk I could name who exemplifies this kind of behavior…it’s just on the tip of my tongue (yuck)….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point, Kris. If someone wants (needs?) to feel privileged, they’ll find some measure that makes them superior, be it wealth, race, gender, lineage, or something else. Even veganism, or fitness, or other personal practices can confer a sense of superiority. As you say, it really does come down to values—if wealth, power, and possessions are seen as more important than respect, integrity, compassion, or contribution, then we’ll keep elevating empty suits—like the Prince of Privilege—to positions of power . . . and the world will suffer the consequences. There’s no easy fix to this, my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s an interesting study! Personally, (among my friends and acquaintances) I’ve found that generosity doesn’t really correlate with the amount of wealth a person has. It seems to be a trait that people either have or don’t have, and their actual ability to give doesn’t change it.
    That being said, I do think that wealth brings a certain amount of comfort and privilege to people who have it, and I can see where they begin to think that they are always entitled to their comfort and privilege, even at the expense of others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t really see differences among my friends or acquaintances between the wealthy and the not wealthy either, Ann. Of course, my friends all tend to drive Subarus, Hondas, and Toyotas, so I don’t see much of that luxury car driver behavior they describe—at least not here in Seattle. Research (and conclusions) like this should probably be taken with a few grains of salt, but if it causes us to think and question, I consider that a win. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I’m looking forward to “getting to know you” through your blog!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love the quotation from Anne Frank. And that will be my take away from this article. I lack finances to be as generous as I’d like. But you can always be kind!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A few years ago, after a typhoon struck my hometown and killed over a thousand people and left thousands more homeless, I spoke with a German friend about how terrible it was for those people who lost everything they had. He answered with, “They had nothing. They lost nothing.” At first I couldn’t understand what he meant. Then it hit me. It is difficult for people who have not experienced poverty to ever truly empathize with the poor.

    They are less compassionate because they have no idea what it’s like not to be wealthy. Or if they were not wealthy before, they’d rather not remember what it was like.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s such an insightful comment, Therese. I had never looked at it that way, but it really does make sense. If one has always known wealth and plenty, they probably can’t even imagine not having it, or not being able to just place an order for it if it’s lost. That seems to align with the idea that we value things we’ve worked for and earned more than we value things that were simply given to us. Thanks for this great comment. Lots of food for thought here…. I hope your hometown has recovered to the extent possible after such a tragedy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Donna. That was 6 years ago and people have recovered emotionally from it far quicker than they have materially. Filipinos have a way of staying happy despite their lack of what the western world would think of as “necessities.”

        In a way I can understand the lack of compassion from the wealthy, as I also see a lack of compassion from the poor towards rich people and their “fake” problems. The sufferings of the rich make no sense to the poor.

        Liked by 1 person

        • True, too. If you haven’t enough food for yourself or your family, you really don’t want to hear about someone hiring a personal trainer to help them lose weight! No matter our circumstances, cultivating our empathy for others is always wise. Thanks, Therese.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. As I read this, I found myself wondering about those food bank donation boxes in supermarkets: How many do you find in expensive stores in upscale neighborhoods, and how full are they? How does that compare with middle-class (whatever the hell that means) and poor neighborhoods? My bet would be that you’d get more donations in poorer neighborhoods–not so poor that people can’t afford anything extra, but just above that, where people know anyone could need a food bank one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting question, Ellen. Could be a great research project for someone who enjoys hanging out in grocery stores and supermarkets. Makes more sense than a lot of the research people are doing these days. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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