Disdain for rich people has reached an all-time high. Thanks to the Panama Papers, we know the one percent shovel their billions offshore to avoid taxes and Bernie Sanders excoriates Wall Street for its corruption on a daily basis.
Since the wealth gap has become so large — the richest 62 billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population — we treat the upper class like a foreign species that lives in gold-encrusted glass cases.
We gawk at their six-door garages and study their behavior with disgust. It’s tempting for everyone else to feel morally superior to the oligarchs sucking us dry. But the truth is the negative psychological traits that come with having money exist to a degree in the middle class too.
There is no doubt that being rich changes how someone acts. For example, psychologists have found the class of people who travel on private jets have
less empathy then those who take the bus.
Multiple studies show the wealthy are more oblivious to people’s emotions, likely because money makes them self-sufficient. But having goals and ambitions can make anyone less tolerant of other humans.
In their daily lives, most people who earn a steady paycheque and have busy schedules think mostly of themselves. They avoid eye contact with homeless people, curse the barista in long coffee lines and get annoyed by how much space baby carriages take upon public transit. And although they may not live in gated mansions, most middle-class people live lives segregated from their neighbors, divorced from the idea of “community.”
Rather than acknowledge the reality of privilege, most people create narratives to justify their accomplishments. This phenomenon is particularly acute in rich people, who studies show are most likely to believe in the idea that hard work begets success. They tend to blame
individuals for economic failure (whereas lower classes blame unfair circumstances) and as a result, often vote for policies that exacerbate inequality.
But it’s not just the wealthy who chalk up their good fortune to long hours and good genes instead of lucky circumstances. Anyone born into a life of advantages creates stories to avoid uncomfortable truths. Gentrifiers tell themselves they are making a neighborhood “more diverse,” instead of displacing low-income residents. White employers tell themselves applicants who don’t look like they are less “qualified” and men’s rights groups tell themselves feminists are trying to oppress dudes.
Belief in the idea that individuals earn their success leads the ultra-wealthy to be less generous. A study by social psychologist Paul Piff found that those who make $25,000 and under are 44 percent more likely to give some of the money to a stranger than those making between $150,000 to $200,000.
A recent Chronicle of Philanthropy study found that those who earn between $50,000 and $75,000 give twice as much to charity than those who make more than $200,000 per year. In addition to feeling entitled to their money, rich people often prefer to spend hard-earned cash on their lavish lifestyles.
Anyone who has gone from being a student to an intern to a full-time employee knows on a smaller level what it’s like for luxuries to quickly become necessities. Once you can afford to buy lunch every day you no longer want to bring Tupperware full of leftovers to the office. Once you can afford to renovate one room, suddenly you notice a need for accent walls and heated floors all over your house. The truth is the more money someone makes, the more they want to spend it on bigger TVs rather than on other people.
There’s no doubt that rich people tend to act more selfishly, which can lead to corruption. But you do not have to be a billionaire to exhibit Gordon Gekko-like behavior. When we criticize the wealthy we should also recognize that the same potential for extreme selfishness exists in all of us.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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