Money over Compassion: Does Greater Affluence Lead to Less Affection?

By Christopher Jan Benitez | Last Updated April 23, 2012

Money can buy you happiness, but, as a revealing study conducted by Berkeley psychologists would suggest, it couldn’t afford you empathy. This latest scientific discovery fuels the fire in the argument that having more money correlates to caring less for others.

The wealthy simply cannot get a rest from criticism.

Not only do they get slagged for monopolizing the wealth in most countries of the world, not to mention their affluent lifestyles and reckless spending on created needs, but they now have to live with the stigma that they are indeed less compassionate than their less-fortunate brothers and sisters, thanks to the study conducted by Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner.

Consider these revealing discoveries from the aforementioned study:

  • Drivers of luxury cars are more impatient and are prone to cutting off motorcyclists during a busy four-way intersection. 1
  • People with less wealth are consistently more compassionate towards other people. 2
  • Participants from both social classes had their heart rates monitored for this particular test. They were all shown a video of children suffering from cancer. The heart rate of those who had less income and were not able to finish their educations slowed down, a sign that they were paying close attention and empathizing with the cancer patients. On the other hand, the wealthy were less inclined to the sympathetic material being shown, as they were seen playing with their cellphones and doodling. 3, 4
  • Subjects were conditioned to think like wealthy people and compare themselves to people less fortunate than them. The exercise showed that the people pretending to be rich were making the same foolhardy and selfish decisions that an actual rich person would normally make. 5

So What Does This Mean?

Given the data, there must be a correlation between the accumulation of wealth leading to the erosion of compassion, morals, and empathy.

From a unscientific point of view judging from the video study conducted by NECN.com, denizens interviewed in the streets of California attributed rich people’s lack of affection to how disconnected they are from reality. 6

There is a certain truth to this claim, as people with more than enough wealth have the choice to make their lives easier. Instead of taking a cab or bus going home, people with wealth have their own cars or chauffeurs to do that for them. For every American family in the Projects suffering to make ends meet in this struggling economy, there is another family at the other end of the social spectrum fuming as to why the French restaurant they are dining at the moment do not have caviar on their menu.

Although these examples may be exaggerations to what is happening in real life, it is not difficult to believe that money exposes people  to the comforts of life as opposed to the damning truths about death and despair. Their wealth allows them to create a social bubble that protects them from the poverty that plagues reality, something that they fail to see in their everyday lives.

People with less than enough are aware of the realities taking place around them. Although they may not share the high-brow taste for clothing, food, fashion, and the arts, they are better equipped to deal with life outside the bubble — emotionally and spiritually.

There is ‘I’ in ‘important’

One thing you cannot take away from wealthy people is their independence, which could explain how their actions and motives are driven towards their self-interests. 7 Money disengages the rich from people because unlike those with very little, they have to depend on other people to satiate some of their needs. Therefore, wealthy people are more inclined to look out for their own welfare instead on worrying about what other people feel or think.

In itself, independence is not a bad thing. Being able to stand up on one’s own is a sign of responsibility and maturity. However, in the context of riches, independence becomes the mitigating factor that explains the insensitive actions of the wealthy in reality, as the tests would conclude.

Therefore, self-worth is a loathsome term in relation to the rich — they are so full of it.

Not to oversimplify a rather complex study of social behavior in relation to their respective classes, but to cite history as an example, most of the high-profile scandals in business and finance were orchestrated by wealthy people. Take Bernie Madoff and Arthur Andersen for instance. They were highly successful businessmen who played integral roles in the Ponzi scheme and Enron, respectively. Both made fortunes out of their (mis)adventures, but were soon caught for their fraudulent practices that cost their investors and partners billions of dollars combined.

My Two Cents

Although we cannot change how certain classes function in a certain way, we can change our attitudes toward the effects that money can have on people. All you need to do is manage your wealth properly to keep in touch with reality.

Below are some key takeaways from the studies:

  • Enough is just about right. If you can’t be rich and empathize with other people, then you can try striking a balance between the two. Having just the right amount of money allows you to focus more on your needs and less on your wants. This also keeps you  grounded and humble as a human being living with others.
  • It is not always about the ‘I.’ In the grand scheme of things, there is always something or someone bigger than yourself. Exclusively focusing on your concerns and welfare prevents you from being aware of  the things around you. As a result, you become too absorbed with what you want to have that you lose track of things that you already have in the first place — your family and friends. Although social relationships do not have any monetary value, these are human concepts that money cannot ultimately buy. Unlike money, the more you rely and build on your  social life, the greater their value becomes.

Are you convinced with the studies conducted by Dr. Piff and Dr. Keltner? Do you believe that having more wealth warps your compassionate side or is the social experiment a scientific anomaly that deal with incomplete data? Share your thoughts by commenting below!




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  1. The cited “study” was based on resoundingly bad statistical methods, assumptions and inference.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/109/25/E1587

    • True. But let’s face it – most of the most controversial and “thought-provoking” studies came from incomplete measurable factors and sweeping generalizations 🙂

  2. This all relies on the base from which the wealth was made: from nothing, i.e. the person developed and idea and marketed into a successful and profitable enterprise, or the financial resources were such that further wealth could be generated using a similar business model, or the wealth was inherited.

    Naturally enough the above situations will produce individuals with different attitudes to wealth and therefore their level of compassion – in other words how they relate to others, will be different. I would suspect that the the level of compassion would diminish as we go from the first example to the last.

    Now if we take this to a further more personal level, it was something we were introduced to in a university course..

    I remember when doing an MBA we studied human relationships in relation to Corporate Philanthropy. I can’t recollect how we got onto the following topic but we did a case on the effect of wealth on offspring.

    This was a real eye opener for me, and is why I remember it so well.

    The kids that were interviewed in the study were from wealthy homes. They had everything money could buy: the branded gear, the flash watches, the Porsches etc., and basically could be described as spoilt rotten.

    But when they were interviewed and asked if they were generally happy with life, the majority said they weren’t happy – and the one reason for this unhappy state that came up time after time? The thought that as a son or daughter they were not loved by their parents. The simple, simple things that a parent can give that don’t cost a cent, but which have the most tremendous impact on a son or daughter as they grow up.

    As an old Beatle’s song goes – “……..money can’t buy you love…..” too true.

    Cheers,

    Mike FD

    • Can’t agree with you more, Michael! Although the findings of the study point to a definitive conclusion, it’s always a case-to-case basis. Wealthy people shouldn’t be pigeonhole into a set of attitudes just as much as non-wealthy people shouldn’t be as well. In this case, however, it’s all about results, and the results they got created this rather controversial conclusion.

      And I love your anecdote about the study made in your MBA and the Beatles reference. Sort of makes you think about whether love is a transcendental and universal absolute. Now, if we can just find the correct variables to test… 😀

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