Friday, July 4, 2014

Is the good life so good?

          Social psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California at Berkeley, has studied the relationship of wealth to traits like empathy, honesty and generosity. The results may not be surprising but it is, at least, good to know that your personal prejudices stand on solid ground, statistically and scientifically speaking. (Piff's work confirms what at least a half century of studies have suggested..)

          Thus, the rich show less empathy and compassion towards others, they tend to be less honest and (curiously), in some situations, more likely to break laws. They tend to feel entitled by their own perceived superiority. This superiority is attributed mainly to hard work and personal values rather than to luck or starting life from a privileged position. The rich are more likely to rationalize, even moralize, greed: the wealthy should not be taxed claim American neoconservatives because their efforts generate wealth which, through job creation, "trickles down" to the masses. (The Golden Shower Theory of Wealth Generation..). The rich are more narcissistic and feel more entitled than the poor do. People seem less important to them than is the case for the less well off.

          In California it is required that motorists yield the right of way to pedestrians at marked crossings:

           So Prof Piff came up with an ingeniously simple experiment. Observe how many motorists obey the law according to the price range of the car they are driving. Neat, eh? So what did he find? There was a humongous variability in courteous behavior. In several studies, he found that 100% of people driving the cheapest cars obeyed the law and yielded the right of way to pedestrians at marked crossings. Compliance fell to a paltry 50% - !sic! - for drivers of high end autos. One usually would not expect such a strong "experimental manipulation" effect in the social sciences. One can only conclude that the entitlement effect is really STRONG!! (especially since the experiments have been repeated)

          Another interesting effect. Rich folks should be able to give more to charity but, in relative terms, on the whole, they don't. Wealthy households give less, relative to their wealth, than less wealthy households.

         But the one that really got to me: if people view videos which are chosen to elicit compassion in viewers, the physiological indicators of "compassionate arousal" (slowed cardiac rhythm, for example) are significantly weaker in the wealthier viewers. Even their physiology - which one might think would not be so easily affected by social factors - is shifted by the mere possession of wealth and the status if confers. This, of course, shows that status is as important for humans as it is for other vertebrates. For example, the brightness or degree of iridescence in birds is often linked to status in the social hierarchy: more color or more iridescence, the higher you are in the hierarchy. If you manage to rise in status by fighting your way to the top, hormone changes associated with dominance cause iridescences to brighten. Become sick or old or get beaten up too much and you dull out as you fall in social dominance.

            Echoing earlier researchers, Prof Piff concludes that there is little real satisfaction in the possession of wealth. Wealth does though provide greater opportunities, better long term health outcomes, etc. Like Aristotle more than 20 centuries ago, he finds the real values of life in the social network, the quality of our relations with others, and the meaning or purposes we find - or create - in life.

             We now know that social status is about as important for humans as for chimpanzees or starlings. But to what degree, and how, are we different from these creatures? Perhaps the real difference is that our more complex brains allow us a "look down" perspective that they do not possess. Humans can, I believe, judge the global effects of a given level of social inequality and adjust our behavior accordingly. It is this capacity which makes wo/man "The Moral Animal".

            Audio of an interview with Prof Piff by Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC radio, July 4, 2014:

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