The Rich Are Different

In empathy

In a conversation that never actually happened face-to-face, this is what F.Scott Fitzgerald ostensibly told Ernest Hemingway, to which he eventually replied: yes, they have more money. A recent study in Health and Science suggests that the rich are less scrupulous than the rest. To the cynical, this comes as no surprise. But personally, I’m not convinced. The study says the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and steal. Minnesota psychologist Vladas Griskevicius told that crime often is driven by a sense of entitlement, not desperation. So much of the appalling greed that drove the financial collapse and the continuing slump in employment would seem to confirm this. What did the study’s author, Paul Piff, conclude?  The rich don’t need other people as much as most of us do. So they’re less empathetic and less likely to be aware of the impact of their behavior on other people.

One interesting discovery in this study: simply pretending to be wealthy can generate the same kind of ego-centric behavior as genuine wealth. Which would seem to confirm that wealth brings with it a kind of numbness toward others. Yet this part of the study intrigues me more than anything else. Studies have shown that fiction—books, movies, stories of any kind—can light up the same regions of the brain as actual fear, lust, and anger. If you see or even imagine someone else engaged in any sort of behavior, your brain behaves as if it’s you. It’s called mirroring. What better call to good behavior is there than this simple scientific finding? Whatever is happening in your own brain will start happening in the brains of others who observe you. Our personal behavior is a potential contagion, every moment of every day. Everything you do is a subconscious example you are setting for others—an act of callousness generates a hurt feeling in someone who is simply watching you and isn’t the even object of your scorn, who then goes on to feel callous toward someone else. The opposite is also true: model compassion and others will follow your lead.

As for the deleterious effects of wealth, I’m unconvinced. I’m close with many many privileged and wealthy people. I’ve been lucky and well-rewarded myself in life. Yet I’ve seen the full spectrum of integrity as well as venality among my cohort. Some of my acquaintances are remarkable and humbling exemplars of goodness. Others evoke my pity and sadness for the way they have strayed. In other words, Hemingway was right: the rich are like all the rest, except they have more money. What about you? Do you buy this research? Are all the wealthy people you know selfish and unscrupulous? Do you know people who have everything a person could want and are repaying that good fortune with generosity and good works? What’s his or her secret?