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)



Driving Miss Crazy

“Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.” (Dan Rather) 

Over the last few years of exploring kindness, writing about it, and occasionally talking about it, one of the most frequent comments I encountered from others was along the lines of, “I think I’m a pretty kind person—except when I’m behind the wheel.”

What is it about driving that can turn a pacifist into a warrior, or transform Prince or Princess Charming into Freddy Krueger? As much as it pains me to say it, there are always going to be some people who will be aggressive jerks under any circumstances—and driving just magnifies that jerkiness to cosmic proportions. But there are also kind and good-natured individuals who transform before our very eyes into sneering auto-crats with the vocabulary of a Quentin Tarantino thug.

Clearly, there is no single reason for the metamorphosis that occurs when an otherwise splendid human being gets behind the wheel of their vehicle—be it a Ford F-150 pick-up, a BMW, or a Toyota Prius.

Some studies cite the protection and the anonymity offered by a heavy vehicle moving at high speed. Surrounded by a few thousand pounds of steel, we can name-call and chastise, knowing that similar behaviors directed back at us can’t actually penetrate the armor of our vehicles (unless the other driver is both psychotic and armed, then all bets are off).

I think the fact that we’re nearly always in a hurry is a big factor, too. We’re just trying to get from here to there and aggressive or oblivious drivers slow us down. They get in our way and then they won’t get out of our way. All the while, the clock is ticking.

There may also be a connection to a condition called “illusory superiority,” a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others(think Lake Wobegon, where, famously, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average). In a famous study conducted some years ago, 93% of American participants rated themselves as above-average drivers. Even with my limited mathematical prowess, I recognize this to be a statistical impossibility. The same study also included Swedish drivers, for whom—somewhat more humbly—only 69% claim to be above average.

So, if 93% of Americans are driving around feeling superior to other drivers, who’s to blame them if they express their superiority by refusing to yield, tailgating, speeding, flashing their lights, and honking their horns. And why should they use turn signals—they know where they’re going, why let the rest of us in on it?

I’ve heard it said that if you really want to get to know someone, just watch how they drive. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There’s something exceptional about driving—it takes certain people out of their day-to-day tranquil reality and drops them in a dystopian battlefield where they become someone else entirely, someone they’re really not all that proud to be. Again, I exempt the true jerks (jerkus americanus) from this acquittal, because they revel in letting their true colors fly as they terrorize the highways, speed the side streets, and assert their dominance across parking lots.

I came across an interesting study that ranked all fifty states and the District of Columbia by the rudeness of their drivers. It also noted what other state held each state in particular contempt for its driving. Surprisingly (to me at least), Idaho drivers were ranked as the rudest of all, and they are especially hated by drivers from Arizona (a state which is ranked 34th and has as its nemesis the state of California). My own state, Washington, comes out pretty well, ranking 43rd in rudeness, and disliked most by our neighbor to the south, Oregon. Washington drivers don’t seem to hold particular animosity for any other drivers, while California drivers appear to hate nearly everyone. Given how highly-caffeinated Washington State drivers are, our ranking comes as a bit of a surprise. But, then, based on the number of venti Starbucks cups I see in drivers’ hands, I suspect we are all just looking for the next easy-access restroom.

In yet another study of rude driving (there are many!), the author concluded that good and courteous drivers are “turned bad” by rude drivers. The courteous ones mistakenly believe that by venting their frustration they will let offending drivers know they have behaved poorly, so that they will not repeat the behavior in future. “It’s a contradiction,” says road safety researcher Lauren Shaw, “good drivers are using rude and unpleasant bad behavior to teach other drivers how to be better drivers.” All that does, she concludes, is confirm to aggressive drivers the bad behavior of all drivers.

Is there way to conquer our own aggressive driving and not be provoked by the hostile or foolhardy driving habits of others? I think there is, but I suspect few people will like it. Here goes anyway: Let go of needing to be right (or righteous)—even when you know you are. Even when you’re absolutely, positively, without any doubt, certain you are right. Let it go.

Maybe we could take a cue from some of the street signs we see all over (and often ignore):

Yield. Let the other guy in—whether he’s merging onto the highway, trying to change lanes, or snatching up the parking place you had identified as your own. Even if it clearly was your space, or if he jumps in without signaling or waving thanks, what does it cost to acquiesce, and to do so without cussing and name-calling?

Stop. Before you act aggressively or react to another driver’s idiocy or belligerence, pause and ask yourself if that’s really who you want to be and whether you will feel better or worse after yelling an obscenity or making that universally recognized hand-gesture. A pause offers us the option to be gracious and to put an end to escalating rudeness.

Seek Alternate Route. Remind yourself that you always have a choice, and when you make the choice—rather than allowing someone else’s behavior to make it for you—you’re not only exhibiting maturity, you’re modeling good behavior for others on the road or in your own vehicle.

I don’t have the slightest idea what this sign means. But maybe it’s a reminder that we can’t always know what’s going on in someone else’s life that has made them behave aberrantly. Maybe they’re a brand-new driver and they’re terrified … perhaps they’re rushing a loved one to the hospital … possibly they’re lost…. Why not give the benefit of the doubt?

Some people will never change. But if driving is one of the few places where you lose control and succumb to unkindness, challenge yourself to take another route the next time you get behind the wheel. See if you can find the road that leads to inner peace.

“When you argue with a fool, make sure he is not similarly engaged.” (Proverb)