Why are the rich considered greedy and lonely: what does science say about the character of wealthy people - ForumDaily
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Why the rich are considered greedy and lonely: what science says about the character of wealthy people

The moral qualities of people with very high incomes have haunted scientists for many years. One high-profile study stated that the richer a person, the more likely he is to take candy from a child or refuse to let a pedestrian pass at a traffic light. Forbes tells what other studies exist on the relationship between morality and wealth.

A grumpy old miser sitting at his desk counting gold coins by a stack of big bills.

Photo: iStock.com/McIninch

Culture and art, popular children's fairy tales regularly demonize everyone, who has any significant capital, and attribute to them all human vices. Even the world's religions seem to exalt poverty over wealth at times.

Why is humanity trying so hard to prove that by the rich Is there something wrong? Are the rich really the problem?

Research one way or another devoted to this issue is extremely contradictory. For example, Paul Piff and his colleagues from the University of Michigan concluded in a 2012 study that people from the upper class behave more unethically and are more likely to break laws. In 2023, sociologists decided to recheck the empirical data of Piff’s study, as well as repeat part of the experiment, and found no evidence of a relationship between social status and unethical behavior.

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“We did the observations many times, very carefully, but never found the effect from the original study,” said Paul Smits of the University of Amsterdam, co-author of the latest paper.

One way or another, scientists with enviable persistence are trying to confirm or refute the statement that the rich are capable of stealing candy from a child, and all that motivates them is the thirst for profit.

"Rich Jerk" Syndrome

In one of Paul Piff's experiments, a bowl of sweets was placed in the room where the subjects were and they were asked not to take them, because sweets were intended for children. The experiment showed that the richer people considered themselves, the more children's candy they took. As a result, the team concluded that as wealth increases, people tend to lose their ability to empathize. However, these conclusions are questioned - no connection between wealth and ethical behavior was found either at the University of Leipzig or at Stanford. However, researchers do not suspect Piff of falsifying the results of experiments - it is possible that in 2012 the rich behaved differently than they do now. For example, there is already evidence that the pandemic has made us more empathic and compassionate.


Other experiments have been conducted that partially or completely confirmed the hypothesis that there is something wrong with the “rich.”

For example, a 2016 survey study found that people with higher social status pay less attention to others and are more self-focused. A 2010 experiment demonstrated that people with low social status are more empathetic and better at reading the emotions of others than higher-income subjects. And in 2008, researchers found that more powerful people were less compassionate towards the problems of others. In addition, in 2019, one of Piff’s experiments was repeated in the United States - and its results were confirmed. Drivers of more expensive cars, as in 2012, were less likely to give way to pedestrians. Paul Piff himself comments on this contradiction: “I still believe that science shows us serious differences in the way people from different walks of life behave. I don’t think we should take the results for granted.”

Scientists and other experts on the topic of behavioral patterns of the rich are no longer surprised. They find quite understandable explanations for this phenomenon. Susan Bradley, founder of the consulting company Sudden Money Institute, believes this may be due to a feeling of isolation.

“Rich people don’t have many friends who are equal to them in terms of income. That is, they literally have no equals around them. At some point, they may begin to suspect that they are communicating with them only for money,” she explained.

In addition, as Hal Hershfield of the University of California at Los Angeles says, the ability to solve everything with money leads to the fact that people lose the skill of unselfishly interacting with friends.

“The habit of transactional relationships permeates areas of life that should be built on a different foundation,” he said.

Christopher Ryan, a writer and PhD in psychology, talks about the “rich idiot syndrome” and puts forward his own theory about the origin of such a syndrome.

“What if most rich assholes were made like this rather than born like this? What if it's not the result of lots of babysitting, sailing, or repeated overdoses of caviar, but the frustration of being kind of lucky but still feeling unfulfilled? - he suggested.

Ryan believes that the root of all evil is the isolation that inevitably comes with wealth.

“What do most of us do when we have money? We buy a car so we don't have to take the bus. Then we move out of the apartment with noisy neighbors into a house behind the fence, check into expensive quiet hotels, and not into noisy, cheerful guesthouses, as before. That is, we use money to protect ourselves from risk, noise and discomfort,” he writes. “But the price of this is isolation.” For the sake of comfort, we cut off the possibilities of chance meetings, new music, other people’s laughter, and non-binding contacts with strangers.”

Psychotherapists also talk about the isolation and paranoia that wealthy people suffer from.

“Their relationships begin to be defined by how well they provide for others, rather than by what kind of people they are,” observed clinical psychotherapist Paul Hockmeyer, whose clients include millionaires and billionaires. These super-rich people often become extremely suspicious of the motives of their friends and family, he said.

Burden of Compassion

At the same time, ideas about the “greed” of rich friends may not be a problem of these very rich people at all, but simply a consequence of inflated expectations. The same Christopher Ryan says that the rich are constantly faced with various requests that poorer people simply do not receive.

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“If you are perceived as richer than those around you, you often have to say no. You are constantly being contacted with requests, suggestions and requests. And, of course, every refusal will be perceived as a manifestation of selfishness or greed,” he explains.

At the same time, a 2017 University of California study found that rich people were actually happier when they thought about themselves or their achievements, while those with much lower incomes were more likely to experience positive emotions when they were focused on others. , namely on compassion and love for them.

However, Ryan believes that the blindness of the wealthy to the suffering of others is not a manifestation of bad character, but a psychological adaptation to the discomfort caused by the wide income gap between the poorest and the richest. He notes that watching people constantly suffer from hunger and poverty forces the psyche to build up armor to cope with stress. As a joint study by psychologists from the University of California, Irvine and the University of British Columbia showed, people who were born rich show more compassion for the problems of the poor, rather than those who became rich themselves and are confident that it is possible with enough effort - like them.

Professor of economic sociology at Copenhagen Business School Brooke Harrington writes that there is much more in common between the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor than it might seem.

“When the rich are revealed to be drug addicts, lechers, or unwilling to work, the reaction (at worst) is tabloid attention followed by a collective shrug,” she writes. “When the poor exhibit this same behavior, it is not only condemned, but used as an excuse to deny them access to vital resources such as health care and food aid, because they are to blame for their situation.” These views are not just evidence of hypocrisy, they are literally a matter of life and death. In the United States, the widespread belief that the only cause of poverty is laziness has led many states to make employment a prerequisite for receiving benefits, even for those who are medically classified as disabled.”

Wealth and power

Research by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page has shown that economic elites have significant influence on US government policy, while ordinary citizens and trade unions have virtually no influence. Thus, the attitudes, preferences and behavior of the rich have enormous consequences, not only in terms of the direct distribution of resources, which in itself is quite a significant factor, but also because of their disproportionate influence on public policy, which affects millions of people.

Alice Walton, a PhD candidate in biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience, raises another important question in her Forbes column. Does wealth make people more evil, or are insensitivity and even cruelty the qualities people need to become rich?

“We can assume that the connection goes in both directions - certain characteristics are required to achieve wealth, but wealth itself has some obvious (read negative) effect on a person,” the expert says. “But it’s very difficult to understand why this happens.” In some ways, this seems counter-intuitive: the rich should be kinder, more generous, and more empathetic, because they have everything going well. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be entirely true."

However, Walton is optimistic - she believes that the rich can develop empathy if they want. For example, through meditation and mindfulness practices.

Are the rich victims of stereotypes?

With so much research and thinking about ethics, greed and the lack of empathy among the rich, the question arises: where does this need to prove that there is something wrong with the rich come from?

Many people believe that the rich are “evil” or “bad” due to stereotypes, contrary to all scientific evidence. Paul Smits, who specializes in research into philanthropy and sustainable finance, believes that people are too cynical about the kind and generous behavior of rich people, believing that they act for selfish or nefarious reasons, although this is not supported by research. His own research has shown that wealthier people are often much more generous with both their time and their money than less wealthy people. Not because they are morally superior, but because they have such opportunities.

“I don’t agree that rich people are good or bad. In my opinion, these characteristics do not depend on how much money a person has,” the expert concluded.

It is likely that the actions of very rich people are perceived differently because they are much more visible and often have more significant consequences.

Vox columnists have even come up with a formula explaining why rich people are jerks. According to their calculations, Total Jerkdom (TJ - the overall level of "jerkiness") of a given demographic group is a product of not only the prevalence of "jerks" in the group, but also the consequences of this quality for the general population. Even if the number of “jerks” among the rich is the same or less than among the population as a whole, their actions will still have more negative consequences because they have a greater impact on politics and society, but at the same time clarify that “everyone” is this is an exaggeration.

“When I say rich people are assholes, does that mean I mean every single one of them? Of course not. That's not how generalizations work. Among the rich people there are many quite nice ones, for example Bill Gates,” the expert emphasized.

Alexander Maksimenko, professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences and chief researcher at the design and educational laboratory for anti-corruption policy at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, is sure that stereotypes are to blame.

“Stereotypes are our lifesavers; they save us a lot of time and psycho-emotional resources of the body, help us perceive and interpret many social phenomena, as well as the relationship between them,” the expert concluded. “But the rich are definitely doing well.” Especially with those who try to be ethical and demonstrate an informed approach to implementing pro-social practices, channeling their entrepreneurial energy into good channels.”

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