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Business & Economy

Does money make people less compassionate?

A woman walks her dog along the affluent shopping street of Calle de Serrano on July 4, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.
A woman walks her dog along the affluent shopping street of Calle de Serrano on July 4, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

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Does having large amounts of money make us less humane? In this month’s issue of New York Magazine, author Lisa Miller dives into several studies that finds that money essentially makes people more unsympathetic and selfish: having money, getting money, and thinking about money makes people solipsistic, or selfish.

A recent study by the law firm Labaton Sucharow found that a quarter of Wall Street executives see wrong-doing as a key to success. Of the 500 senior executives from the U.S. and the U.K. that were interviewed, 26 percent said they had first hand knowledge of wrong-doing in the work place, a quarter reported that in order to be professionals and succeed in their business, it was necessary to engage in unethical or illegal conduct, and 16% said that they would commit insider trading if they believed that they could get away with it. 

A new field of study has emerged to investigate the current era of income inequality, using experiments at traffic stops and board games to see the effects of increased wealth on human psychology. And the verdict isn’t so kind to the wealthy.

They’re more likely to be not stop at stop signs, be mean during games of Monopoly and steal candy from a bowl designated for children. As Paul Piff, researcher of the effects of money at UC Berkeley wrote, “The Rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, ---holes.”

Caller Albert from Long Beach details his personal experience with money and personality: "I became more isolated, more depressed. I took on some mannerisms that just weren't healthy…. My point is, I do think that money has a lot of effects on a person's personality. From what I saw of my own experience, I would never have expected it. It really shocked me."

Lisa Miller, writer and senior editor at Newsweek, recounts a study that dealt with money and time.

"If you start to think about your time in terms of money — when you start correlating your time so closely with money, you start to freak out and you become impatient and you become isolated and you become very unhappy," said Miller. "The professor I spoke to was an academic and he said that one of the reasons academics were so happy as a group is because what they do day-to-day and how they get paid are so disconnected that their time is flexible, and they aren't doing this very close correlation between time and money."

Piff has conducted practical studies that look at the influence of wealth on aspects of everyday life. He found that, "upper class individuals are less responsive to, for instance, videos that depict images of suffering, or instances of childhood poverty. They're less likely to show that physiological response that we associate with compassion."

On the other hand, the relatively less well-off participants were far more reactive. "They really look at the emotions that other people are feeling. They're better able to accurately infer and decode what the emotions of other people are and they respond accordingly," he said.

Caller Susanne from Long Beach made an important distinction. She believes that it is more of an issue of class divide rather than money. She speaks from personal experience: "Some of the people that I know now that are making very good money were out of work just a few years ago, so I think that they have more compassion, more understanding. They've been there. Maybe the super rich have always been super rich."

Piff agrees. Research finds that people who have experienced that situation in their past are far more likely to be compassionate and emphatic.

Caller Naomi from Studio City states that the only way to get ahead is to be a "shark" because it comes with status: "I've been the nice guy, and it's not getting me anywhere. The nice people tend to be taken advantage of, you known, just left behind. So I'm starting to believe that you have to become a shark. I don't really think it's an issue of whether you have money or not, I think it's more of status, the feel of status that people have."

Caller David from Manhattan Beach speaks of the regional wealth difference. The "nature of wealth changes as you reach the upper reaches. For us, money, wealth, is a tool for changing our environment. For them, there's nothing more they can really change and wealth becomes something to keep score with, and if you give up wealth, you're giving up points."


Does money make people less compassionate?


Lisa Miller: writer and senior editor at Newsweek

Paul Piff: Ph.D candidate at the psychology department at UC Berkeley.