Why The Rich Have Less Empathy Than You Or Me

Recently, scientists conducted a series of twelve experiments, and discovered something that didn’t exactly knock me off my chair:  rich people have less empathy than you or me!  We 99% “…just show more empathy, more prosocial behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it.”[1]  Put another way, “upper-class rank perceptions trigger a focus away from the context toward the self….”[2]

In other words, most rich people are selfish bastards.  While watching a video about children with cancer: “The results of the study showed that participants on the lower end of the spectrum, with less income and education, were more likely to report feeling compassion while watching… In addition, their heart rates slowed down…—a response that is associated with paying greater attention to the feelings and motivations of others.”[3]

This lack of feeling toward others manifests itself in interesting ways:  luxury car drivers are far more likely to cut off other drivers or speed past pedestrians who are trying to cross.[4]  Believe me, I know.  I grew up in Encino, a wealthy L.A. enclave, and back then, it was the Cadillac drivers you had to look out for.  Now, the Asshole Awards go to those in Beamers, Benzes, and Lexii.  I can’t tell you how many times these One Percenters have given me the virtual finger, not letting me in and cutting me off as if spending $80k on a vehicle presumes some Constitutional right.  To them (and I mean this in the nicest way possible): I hope you’re pitchforked by demons in Hell.

It’s been determined that members of the upper class have a harder time reading people’s emotions.  “Upper-class people, in spite of all their advantages, suffer empathy deficits,” says Dr. Keltner, one of the scientists. “And there are enormous consequences.” [5]  When everyone is kissing your ass twenty-four hours a day; when you never hear that one little word, “No”; when the world is there to do your bidding and you are its  Creator,  why should you care what anyone thinks?  Wealth is a license for ill.

In one of the experiments, Dr. Keltner found that less affluent individuals are more likely to report feeling compassion towards others on a regular basis. For example, they are more likely to agree with statements such as, “I often notice people who need help,” and “It’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable.”[6]  How many times have you seen an Armani-clad exec clamber out of his Porsche and offer money to the homeless?  I thought so.  No, it’s usually people like you and me (struggling to emerge from my crumbling Saturn) because we can relate:  there but for the grace of God. . .

Which brings us to this chicken-and-egg question:  do people get rich because they are selfish, or do they become selfish after they get rich?  I think the answer is Yes, and Yes.  The desire to amass large stores of cash stems from an essentially “Me”-centric philosophy.  Expressed as: screw everyone else, I am going to get mine.  After you have the mansion and the Ferrari, the Trophy Wife and Robot Kids, why not toss some of that lucre toward the less fortunate:  the sick, the aged, the homeless?  Bill Gates finally ended up doing good, but it took decades (and perhaps Melinda?) to loosen the hand on his wallet.

Other philanthropists come from strange industrial backgrounds.  It was not until after Andrew Carnegie had his workers killed by Pinkertons that he built all those lovely libraries.  Henry Ford installed secret police in his plant before creating the Foundation that led to the genesis of Sesame Street.

Personal philanthropy makes the rich shudder.  They would rather see their mother on the street than give one penny of aid.   And when they do give, it comes with so many strictures and recriminations, so much judging and begrudging, that that mother ends up wishing she’d just signed up for a homeless shelter instead.

The rich make Silas Marner look like Legs Diamond.  Because they can’t relate to The Rest Of Us, they give paltry tips and miserly gifts.  Yet to themselves, they never fail to be generous.  In their minds, they deserve their wealth, and luck plays absolutely no part in it.[7]  Not the trust fund left by mommy and daddy.  Not the “lift all boats” family member who invents ketchup or opens a steel mill in China.  Not the ex who happens to be Steven Spielberg.

There is an enormous disconnect between those cutting you off in their Benzes and you.  Even if the One Percent started off poor, they will do everything to cast off the past, the jettisoned cargo including noses, names, and family.   It’s inconvenient to look at someone and realize they once knew you as Sophie Goldberg who worked at the A&P.  Far more glamorous to do the L.A. and pretend that life starts Now.  And the newfound friends – the ass-kissers – see only that which is fabulous and not the cold hard truth:  that this person has as much empathy as a toad.

Right now, 80% of America’s wealth is held by the top 20%. But if you ask these people, they will tell you that the distribution of wealth is equal .[8]    The good news (for them) is that they don’t concern themselves about starving children or the gravely ill.  This unpleasantness dwells far away, in remote lands where their workers live; or in poor neighborhoods which they never enter, but is where the Help is from.  Nice to know that our most powerful citizens (including Congress) essentially don’t give a damn.  That might explain the GOP.  It certainly explains The Romneys.