Visions  
comments_image Comments

Inside the Psyche of the 1% -- Many Actually Believe Their Ideology of Greed Makes for a Better World

If the 1% are to develop the same level of understanding of others that the 99% has, they will need to walk in their shoes.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share

People with fewer financial resources live in more threatening environments, whether from potential violence, being unable to pay medical bills, or fearing the possibility of being evicted from their homes. This means that social classes differ in the way that they view the world from an early age. Children from less financially secure homes respond to descriptions of threatening and ambiguous social scenarios with higher blood pressure and heart rate. [15] Adults with lower incomes are also more reactive to emotional situations than are those with more money.

This means that people with fewer financial resources are more attentive to others’ emotions. Since low income people are more sensitive to emotional signals, they might pay more attention to the needs of others and show more altruism in response to suffering.

This was the thinking behind research linking higher income to less compassion. In one study people either watched a neutral video or one depicting a child suffering from cancer. People with lower income had more change in their heart rate and reported feeling more compassion. But they did not rate other emotions as higher. Social class could be linked to compassion more than to any other emotion. [16]

In another study, people reported their emotions toward a partner when the two of them went through a hypothetical job interview. Lower income people perceived more distress in their partners and expressed more compassion toward them. Again, they did not report more intense feelings of other emotions. Nor did participants show more compassion toward people with the same income level as their own. [17]

Like most psychological research, these findings are limited by their use of university students. This makes it hard to conclude that their findings apply to those not in school. Of course, it is quite possible that effects would be even stronger in situations that are far more intense than the somewhat mild experiences that occur in psychological laboratories. A greater problem is interpreting psychological findings as showing absolute differences between groups rather than shades of grey.

It would not be accurate to claim that research proves that the 1% have no compassion while all of the 99% do. But it strongly implies that the 1% feel less compassion, whether watching a videotape of suffering or participating in a live social interaction. Also, lab studies are consistent with findings that people with fewer financial resources give a higher proportion of what they do have to charity. In economic game research, they give more to others. [18] 

This line of research confirms that (1) people with fewer financial resources identify with a larger “in-group;” (2) “attention to and recognition of suffering is a prerequisite step before compassion can take place;” and (3) “moral emotion is not randomly distributed across social classes…” [19] Compassion toward the suffering of others is less likely among the 1%.

The happiness paradox

The endurance of the story of Scrooge reflects a deeply ingrained understanding that replacing compassion with a devotion to accumulating wealth will not bring fulfillment. But it is not that simple. What I call the “happiness paradox” flows from two consistent yet seemingly contradictory findings:

1. At a given point in time, higher income is positively associated with happiness; but,

2. Over time, per capita income can rise greatly with no rise in happiness.

Let’s look at the first of these. It is true that there is a positive correlation between income and happiness. People who make more money describe themselves as happier. But the diminishing returns of the happiness curve are profound. The greatest reason for the correlation is the huge jump in happiness as people move out of poverty into the world of survive-ability. At higher income levels, more money is associated with extremely small increases in happiness. In fact, moving from the ninth to the tenth (top) income category only increases happiness 0.02 point on a 10-point scale. [20]

 
See more stories tagged with: