Wealth and the empathy problem

A roll of $100 bills. The finance world is bored of acting somber, and a new study finds that the wealthy are more likely to lie, cheat, and steal.

After a brief moratorium on expressing blatant money-making glee, the financial ruling class seems to be getting its groove back.

It’s not that the economy has recovered -- far from it. This month has seen a discouraging new low in the housing market and persistent concerns over income inequality -- not to mention a slew of new insider trading cases, which don’t exactly look good for champions of the finance world.

Yet characters like these “Titans at the Table” have decided it’s safe to emerge from the shadows of subdued humility – for instance to bemoan the demonization of the business community while eating foie gras and venison loin.

To most of the country, a conversation about the “wonderful” elements of bankruptcies and the mortgage crisis would seem downright tacky. So why doesn’t this crowd have the same sensibility?

The explanation may have to do with a study described in Bloomberg news today, which essentially found that wealth tends to erodes one’s conscience. The rich are more likely to lie, cheat, cut people off in traffic, and even steal candy from children, its author Paul Piff discovered.

The solution is to foster empathy in the members of the upper class, Piff concluded. “It’s not that the rich are innately bad,” he wrote. They're just more self-centered, and need to be reminded of the needs of others. Piff suggests ethics classes could do the trick.

And we’ll soon have the chance to find out if he’s right; Piff plans to make this theory the basis of his next study.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...