Food For Thought #10: Mutual Incompatability – The Wealthy And Social Equity.

There is more and more coverage these days of things psychological and how our behaviour and reactions are ultimately governed by our genetic makeup.  You’re not that free wheeling, free thinking little entity that you think you are!  Oh no!  Not only is your flight or fight response hard wired, but much of your responses, what you do, and think, is too.  Or at least that’s what those who examine that lump of stuff in our heads are telling us.

The first shock was enlightenment that my free will was illusory and I was also delusional (See Food For Thought #2).  I was therefore more than a little interested in the piece in New Scientist (21 April) about how money can subtly change our behaviour.

There’s lots of clichés about how money changes people for the worse and now the evidence is growing that this view actually has an element of truth in it.  So, what seems to be the message from current research?

Starting from the premise that wealth tended to make people less empathic and more self-interested and socially disconnected and that poverty made people more generous studies are showing that this was indeed the case.  In meet and greet situations, poorer subjects had a greater likelihood of using warmer and more expressive body language than richer subjects, who were much more aloof and distant.  An experiment designed to compare how people rate facial emotions showed much the same.  People with more prestigious jobs were consistently worse at reading emotions.  Further experimentation also showed that students from poorer backgrounds were better at guessing feelings than were their wealthier cohorts.

It also appears that the differences are fluid and change with a person’s perception of their position within a group.  I hate to say this but in chooks it’s called ‘pecking order’.  The conclusion of the experimenters was that the fluidity was an automatic reaction leading us to more vigilance and mindfulness of others when we feel subordinate. So it’s hard-wired then?

Further experimentation has also shown that in the altruism stakes poorer, less privileged people will share more of a reward with others than those higher on the social ladder.  This ‘wealthy’ selfishness seems to appear in both laboratory and real-world situations where in many instances wealthier people are more likely to behave unethically than are people from poorer backgrounds.  Who are more likely to commit an offence while driving?  Eat sweets intended for children?  Cheat to increase their chance of winning a prize? Go on, have a guess?  Well done!  Spot on!

While there is still a need to be cautious until there are a wider range of experiments which show similar behaviour occurring in a wide range of situations and cultures, you’d have to say that the evidence is mounting that all those western culture clichés are founded in reality.

Adding to the weight of evidence, studies in the effects of culture on behaviour demonstrate that social and financial success can make for less caring people.  The causative agents are considered to be due to the range of opportunities created by wealth.  From focussing on how you can create more wealth, to your own needs and interests, to better diets and educational opportunities.

It also seems that a more self-centred mindset accompanying wealth may also affect your political opinions.  For example people from poorer backgrounds view the economic inequality in America being due to political influence or educational opportunities.  The wealthier, on the other hand considered that economic inequality was due to their hard work or superior talent.  In effect, poorer people are apparently more aware of contextual or social factors, whereas the more socially and financially wealthy consider life as being what you make of it.

While this might be predictable in that the wealthy feel deserving of their high income, and the ‘hard up’ don’t wish to consider themselves responsible for their condition, there may be important consequences of such perceptions when politics are involved.

It may be that wealth and success, which lead to reduced empathy, may contribute to conservative, right-wing positions which are aimed at preserving the interests of the rich.

The research may also suggest that the altruistic tendencies of even the most well-meaning politicians may be degraded by the money and prestige of high office.  In the words of the researcher (Michael Kraus, University of California, San Francisco):  ‘A government run by wealthy educated people is going to be interested in maintaining the current social order.  It’s members will not be interested in the welfare of everybody, but in the welfare of themselves and their own goals.’

The findings also serve to undermine the ‘trickle-down economics’ philosophy propounded by free-marketeers and so eloquently expressed by John Kenneth Galbraith’s horse and sparrow theory:  ‘If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows!’  It suggests that despite actions that protect the interests of the wealthy, in the hope that they will invest more in society, they will be more concerned about preserving their own interests than helping those less fortunate than themselves through philanthropy or through wage and working environment equity.

In essence the research results indicate that it is psychologically improbable for the wealthy to give back, or to be relied upon to fix society’s problems.  And looking at the political implications of this research, how does it equate to our politicians, and what does it mean for the creation of a socially equitable Australia?  And that’s food for thought  . . . . . .!


Bond M: The Price of Wealth. New Scientist, 21 April 2012. Pp52-55.

About deknarf

Australian born and bred who has spent most of his working life in R&D and IP management with earlier forays in the newspaper industry and martial arts. Fortunate enough to be living in one of the best countries in the World, even though I might get grumpy with it from time to time.
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