Scientific American has announced that rich people aren’t nice. In fact, they are less compassionate, more unfair and greedier than poor people. These allegations are based on the findings of two Berkeley psychologists, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner.
There were a number of studies involved, and some significant problems are evident. For instance, Scientific American reports that factors “we know affect compassionate feelings, such as gender [and] ethnicity” were controlled. However, there is no explanation as to how gender or ethnicity affects compassion. Is there one ethnic group that is most compassionate? Is one gender always less compassionate than another?
Another study reportedly manipulated ‘class feeling’:
The researchers asked participants to spend a few minutes comparing themselves either to people better off or worse off than themselves financially. Afterwards, participants were shown a jar of candy and told that they could take home as much as they wanted. They were also told that the leftover candy would be given to children in a nearby laboratory. Those participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were compared to others ended up taking significantly more candy for themselves–leaving less behind for the children.
It is unclear as to how participants’ thoughts were measured, or whether or not participants were given some sort of indication of the neediness of the children involved. (Were the kids hungry? Malnourished? Did the kids “need” candy?)
The point of the Scientific American article is this: ‘…the most powerful among us may be the least likely to make decisions that help the needy and the poor.’ And the assumption is that money made them this way. Even worse is the assumption that the needy and poor are in no way capable of helping themselves; they have to wait until someone comes along and gives them something – anything – to get them out of poverty. Those in need are just the poor kids down the hall without any candy, hoping someone will pass along the leftovers.
Money is not the teacher of morality, compassion, fairness or empathy. Money doesn’t supply a person with cultural or moral formation. We do that – as participants in our own culture, society, religious institutions and government. Americans value compassion, but we also value hard work, creativity, initiative and personal responsibility. Do we want a culture of compassionate but needy folks awaiting leftover candy, or do want a culture that highlights empathy and self-reliance, partnership with the poor rather than paternalism? A free and virtuous society will be built on the latter.