Why poor people tend to be more generous than the rich
Posted by: Uma Shashikant on Jul 23, 2018, 06.14 PM IST
By Uma Shashikant
We were out shopping when the store assistant began to shower disproportionate attention on a fellow shopper, who was simply dressed and quiet in demeanor. She decided quickly, bought a few very high value items and left the store. Piqued, we asked the assistant how he figured among so many shoppers which one was rich. His answer was simple: She did not care to look at or be interested in anyone else in the shop, but focused only on the goods.
A growing body of research says the rich tend to display distinct behaviour that can be mostly characterised as mean. Since much of this behaviour is implicit and subconscious, calling them out or nudging them to correct it can actually make it better. In a world where income inequalities are only rising, and where amassing money is an avowed objective pursued without a tinge of regret, it might make sense to pause and ask if we are turning out to be rich and somewhat soulless.
Paul Piff at the University of California, Berkeley, ran a series of experiments to observe how those who have more money behave in a given situation, compared to those with less. He found that players in a rigged game of Monopoly that awarded them twice the money as their opponent, and let them roll both dices, began to display behaviours that were dominant, loud and aggressive. They moved their coins around the board with a thud, ate more of the free snack, and spoke loudly.
At the end of the game, they attributed their success to their strategy and skill, completely sidestepping the fact that they entered the game with privilege. Researchers explain that the rich tend to rationalise their advantage, and believe that they deserved it. They pursue their self-interest and moralise greed easily. The misuse of power and privilege and growing unethicality in societies is increasingly seen as arising from such attitudes.
Pia Dietz and Eric Knowles studied how social class differences influence how we process information. They confirm the simple perception of our store assistant. Poorer people are more likely to notice, engage with, pay attention to and empathise with other humans, compared to the rich. How relevant others are to our goals and motivation is what drives our interaction with others. With wealth and privilege comes independence. The poor on the other hand view others as potentially rewarding, threatening or worth paying attention to. Dietze and Knowles call this the motivational difference.
The lack of empathy and compassion in the rich as compared to the poor is also well documented. In an experiment, the rich took twice the amount of candies meant for kids as compared to the poor! Micheal Kraus of Yale University who specialises in the study of hierarchies, points out that the poor are likely to more accurately judge the emotions of other persons; make more accurate inferences about such emotions; and have higher empathic accuracy as compared to the rich. The rich are not very good at reading emotions of the others and lack empathy and compassion. This deficit stems primarily from their lack of dependence on others.
Wealth also clouds moral judgment and triggers the propensity to cheat or break the law. A study of the attitude of car owners showed that more expensive cars were more likely to block and cross other cars, and less likely to yield to pedestrians who had the right of way. The rich paid lower taxes, and were more prone to evade taxes and hide their wealth; the rich were more likely to adopt questionable accounting and business practices and sidestep ethical practices; and the rich were more likely to use their powers to perpetuate illegal and unlawful activities.
Igor Grossman proposes the idea of wise reasoning, a pragmatic approach to problem solving that is influenced by life experiences and social contexts. It considers the perspectives of others, recognises the likelihood of change, understands how a conflict will unfold and sees the need for compromise and seeks conflict resolution. Grossman’s research shows that the rich have a lower tendency for wise reasoning as compared to the poor.
Privilege can create a sense of entitlement The rich worry more about how other view them, and are likely to consistently blame others for things going wrong. One of the reasons for poor quality personal, family and romantic relationships among the rich as compared to the poor is the former’s inability to apply themselves with flexibility, empathy and open mindedness when faced with uncertainties in personal relationships. The poor seem more willing to compromise or change their positions.
Rich does not equal mean, and that is not what research points out. There are implicit biases that develop as one becomes wealthy, and self-awareness, nudges in the right direction, and greater social engagement with eclectic groups are all steps to keep the negative tendencies in check. Not all rich can be grouped in one stereotypical class either—there are various psychological classifications of the inheritors, the first time rich, the altruists and the firmly grounded wealthy folks.
The moral corrosion that wealth seems to encourage stems from a subconscious sense of entitlement and a distinctly different code of conduct and norm that privilege creates in the mind of the rich. The ancient philosophers and thinkers who bemoaned the pursuit of wealth might have had these corrosive effects in mind when they called upon the rich to donate and give away their wealth; or asked societies to focus on need rather than greed.
While we rejected the socialistic model for its romanticised view of a shared society that did not create the incentives for wealth creation, we are now staring at the income inequalities created by the capitalistic model and its consequences on our morality, ethics and societal harmony.
Many suggest charity as a great way to address this issue. But there is evidence that the poor are more generous than the rich. The intergenerational wealth transfer from the baby boomers that is now underway is seen as the single largest inheritance event that will produce too many privileged rich with possibly the behavioural limitations we just listed.
What will we do with all the money we have is a question we all have to answer with an open heart and mind. Indulging the next generation and passing it on need not be the default option.
(The writer is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning.)