Friday, February 28, 2014

148.1 - How being rich can make you a sociopath

How being rich can make you a sociopath

This is going to be an unusual edition of Left Side of the Aisle in that it's going to address a single topic, something I've discussed in brief form the past couple of weeks: the sickness of being rich.

In fact, I have to start with a correction or more properly a clarification of something from last week:

Last week, I said that being rich is a sickness. That's not quite right. Rather, it's an unhealthy condition. It's the same sort of thing as being obese: Obesity is not itself a sickness; you can be fat and healthy your entire life. However, it is an unhealthy condition is that it does put you at greater risk for variety of ailments, such as problems with cholesterol or diabetes or heart problems.

In the same way, being rich is not itself a sickness: It's possible for you to be rich and yet a decent human being. But it puts you at much greater risk for a variety of social sicknesses, social pathologies, such that while in the end they may not be damaging to you individually, they can have severely damaging effects on the society around you.

Simply put, being rich puts you at risk of being a self-absorbed, selfish, conceited, narcissistic sociopath utterly convinced of your own inherent superiority, lacking a social conscience, and callously indifferent to the welfare of others not of your elevated social class - and perhaps indifferent even to them. And the richer you are, the greater the risk.

And no, that is not hyperbole. There is a mountain of sociological and psychological evidence backing it up. Don't believe me? Settle in; you're about to get a lesson. Here's some data:

Consider, for one example, a study published two years ago in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences." Psychologist Paul Piff of UCal Berkeley and four colleagues from the University of Toronto conducted a series of seven studies which showed that, in the words of the title of their paper, "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior."

The studies found that, compared to lower-class individuals, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making, more likely to take valued goods from others, more likely to lie in a negotiation, more likely to cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize, more likely to endorse unethical behavior at work, and to have more favorable attitudes toward greed. In sum, the fact is, being rich undermines your morals.

In a follow-up study, published in August 2013 in "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin," Piff and some colleagues conducted five experiments which demonstrated that “higher social class is associated with increased entitlement and narcissism.”

The experiments involved several hundred undergraduates plus 100 adults recruited from online communities. They used multiple methods for measuring narcissism, entitlement, and social class in multiple populations. The strength of the study is that they approached the same basic question several different ways - and the results were consistent: Essentially, the richer you are, the more you tend to be a self-important twit.

For example, when asked to visually depict themselves as circles, with size indicating relative importance, richer people picked larger circles for themselves and smaller ones for others. They also looked in the mirror more frequently and spent more time looking when they did.

Another test measured how participants scored on a standard scale of “psychological entitlement” and found that those of a higher social class - the judgement of social class being based on income levels, education, and occupational prestige - those of a higher social class were more likely to feel they are, in words of one question, "just more deserving than others.” People further down the social ladder were likelier to say “I do not necessarily deserve special treatment.”

Significantly, the researchers asked college students in one experiment to report the educational attainment and annual income of their parents. Remember, these are students: They have not yet made their mark or achieved any success on their own. Even so, those with more highly educated and wealthier parents remained higher in their narcissism and self-reported feeling of entitlement.

This is important because it's often argued that, sure, there's a connection between being rich and being a narcissist, but that's because narcissistic people, self-involved people, are more likely to become successful and thereby become rich. But these results say the opposite: that the narcissism comes first, that it's the wealth that breeds the narcissism, not the other way around - which sounds odd, I realize, but what I mean is that the studies say that it's not that you're rich because you're narcissistic, it's that you're narcissistic because you're rich. And rich people justify their excesses by convincing themselves that they are more deserving of it. Which means being rich undermines your morals and makes you self-absorbed and selfish.

As a sidebar, that fact is reflected in the fact that statistics on charitable giving show that, measured as a portion of your income, the poorest among us donate early two and a-half times as much as the richest: 1.3% of income for the rich, 3.2% for the poor. And reflecting that narcissism, the rich are more likely to donate to things either that they use themselves, such as theater groups or symphonies, or to projects to which their names can be attached, such as at universities and museums, while the poor donate to things that actually benefit other people.

The narcissism that Piff and his colleagues uncovered relates to another study, also published last August, this one done by Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dacher Keltner of UCal-Berkeley. The study appeared in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology."

Kraus and Keltner set out to examine social class essentialism. To understand this, you have to understand what essentialism is. Essentialism is the belief that surface differences between two groups of people or things can be explained by differences in their fundamental natures. More directly, that they are manifestations of their fundamental natures. An illustration often used is that dogs are dogs and have a certain dogness about them and cats are cats and have a certain catness and dogs and cats are separate things and will remain so.

It's a type of categorization. Categorization is natural and normal; in fact, it would be hard to see relationships among various things without establishing some categories. The thing is, essentialism sees such categories as natural - that is, they don't just exist in our heads, they are not just mental constructs created as a means of mentally organizing and making sense of the world, they actually exist in fact and what's more, these categories are both discrete and stable. Things that appear different on the surface look different because they are actually different in their essential nature.

Put simply, essentialism is categorization taken to the extreme. Which means that essentialism is the cause of bigotry, prejudice, and stereotyping because it defines surface differences as fundamental differences. People can hold essentialist beliefs about more biological categories such as gender, race, and sexuality, as well as more cultural ones such as nationality, religion, and political orientation. I've commented more than once that the fundamental, baseline requirement for justifying war is defining the target as "not us," as "other," as in some way discrete from us. That's essentialism.

Okay. Kraus and Keltner wanted to see if people regarded social class essentially. That is, did people view social class as natural, inherent, and fixed; did they view outward signs of different social classes as reflecting fundamental differences among the people occupying them. More simply put, did people think that your genes are what determine what social class you occupy.

First, they developed a scale for measuring essentialistic beliefs about class. People were asked the beliefs about statements such as “I think even if everyone wore the same clothing, people would still be able to tell your social class.”

Participants also gave a subjective rating of their own social class rank within their community; again, social class was based on education, income, and occupational status. Even after controlling for political orientation and objective measures of a participant’s income and education, the researchers found that higher social class was associated with greater social class essentialism. That is, overall, the higher a social class you were in, the higher a social class you thought of yourself as being in, the more you thought it was because you just deserved to be there. That you were supposed to be there. That you just deserved, by your very nature, to be of a higher status, to be elevated above, the people around you. Being rich undermines your morals and makes you self-absorbed and arrogantly condescending.

Kraus and Keltner looked deeper into the connection between social class and social class essentialism by testing participants’ belief in a "just world." "Just world" theory was developed in the 1960s. It says that people are motivated to believe that the world is a fair place because the alternative - bad things happen to good people for no reason - is too distressing. "Just world" theory is used to explain reactions such as blaming the victim for what happens to them: “She shouldn’t have dressed that way” and that sort of thing, finding a way to feel that what happened to the victim was in some way justified.

So in the tests, participants were asked their reactions to statements such as “I feel that people get what they are entitled to have.”

Kraus and Keltner found that the higher people perceived their social class to be, the more strongly they endorsed just-world beliefs. In other words, if you feel you’re doing well, you'll convince yourself that success comes to those who deserve it - which means, then, that those of lower status must not deserve it. They have less because they are supposed to have less, they are poor because they are supposed to be poor and by their very nature do not deserve to have any more. Put more bluntly, the upper classes think that the lower classes are not merely unfortunate, they are genetically inferior and the higher your class, the more likely you are to believe that. Being rich undermines your morals, it makes you self-absorbed and arrogantly condescending, and it makes you a bigot no different from those who insist that blacks are genetically inferior to whites.

This is where this work connects back to Piff's. Remember, Piff's research showed that it's not that narcissistic people are more likely to become rich but that being rich makes you narcissistic, makes you believe that you have more because you deserve to have more, that you simply are better than people who have less and they have less because they deserve less. What Kraus and Keltner's work means is that they approached the same question from a different direction - and got the same answer.

In summing up previous research done by others, Piff said that upper-class individuals also “showed reduced sensitivity to others’ suffering” as compared with working- and middle-class people. He suggested that was because lower-class individuals are more likely to spend time taking care of and interacting with others in a social network while upper-class individuals seek to differentiate themselves from others.

But there's another at least equally and I think more plausible explanation for this lack of empathy on the part of the rich. At least in our capitalistic society, wealth means power. It was Lord Acton who said, in it's popular form, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Over the years, psychologists have performed literally hundreds of experiments testing the concepts of power and its exercise and overwhelmingly they have come to the same conclusion: Lord Acton had it right. Power corrupts. And wealth means power. And that's what we'll talk about next at a post linked here.

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