Why Rich People Don't Care About You
Examine the income ladder of the United States, and you'll soon stumble upon a surprising fact: Rich people donate a smaller portion of their income to charity than poor people. In 2011, people in the bottom 20% donated 3.2 percent of their earnings. People in the top 20% donated just 1.3 percent.
These numbers don't seem to be anomalous, but there is some nuance. Data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics shows that taxpayers making less than $60,000 donate around 3.75% per year, while those making between $200,000 and $10 million donate less than 3%. However, those making more than $10 million are the most generous of all, donating nearly 6% of their income.*
Psychologists have examined this dynamic even further.
"What we've been finding across dozens of studies and thousands of participants across this country is that as a person's levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases," Paul Piff, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, announced in a 2013 TEDx talk.
In one study, Piff brought rich and poor members of the community into the lab and gave them each $10. Participants were told that they could keep the money or share it with a stranger. The poorest subjects, those making less than $25,000 a year, gave 44% more than those making between $150,000 and $200,000.
In another instance, Piff and his associates ventured out to a California crosswalk, where motorists are required by law to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross the street. They then watched the actions of drivers as one of the researchers would stand at the side of the road, plainly waiting to walk across. Over 152 observations, they noted that not a single driver in the least-expensive car category buzzed through the crosswalk -- they all stopped. On the other hand, 50% of drivers in newer, more expensive cars like BMWs and Priuses drove right through.
Perhaps the most publicized of Piff's studies involved that quintessentially American board game: Monopoly. Piff brought numerous pairs of students into a small room and filmed them as they played the game. At the outset, students flipped a coin to determine whether they would be in a poor or privileged position. The privileged players were given more cash, collected twice as much money as they passed Go, and were permitted to roll the dice twice. Piff described what happened:
"The rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person, less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success, more likely to showcase how well they're doing."
Piff also noticed something fascinating in the privileged players' responses at the conclusion of the game.
"They talked about what they'd done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game, and they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation, including that flip of a coin that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place."
Piff and his colleagues theorize that the reason the rich seem to be less caring and compassionate compared to their peers is that their wealth affords them the luxury of not having to rely on others. Over time, their sense of empathy can grow less sensitive.
Amazingly, UC-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found a physiological manifestation of this deficit. He said in a recent Figure 1 video:
"Our lab and other labs are interested in something called the vagus nerve. It's the longest bundle of nerves in the human nervous system. In our research on compassion, the feeling of caring for someone in need activates the vagus nerve. Lower class individuals, if we show them images of suffering, they have a vagus nerve response. You don't see that in upper class individuals."
So what does it matter if the wealthy don't care about the rest of society? The problem is that they are increasingly making society's decisions. For the first time last year, more than half the members of the U.S. Congress were millionaires, with roughly twice the net worth of the average American household.
Of course, the wealthy aren't doomed to be Scrooges. For instance, the studies did not examine if there were behavioral differences between those who earned their wealth versus those who simply lucked into it. Also, Keltner insists that the human brain is hardwired to care. The wealthy just have to consciously work to be more cognizant of their fellow humans.
*Section added 1/22