“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)
Some 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)