I try to build bridges between the best of empirical studies and what I notice in the world. If you have followed this site you will have noticed my concern about the effects of inequality on our society – and on each of us individually.
This week’s post introduces you to the growing evidence that there is a problem for all of us when a minority are so much richer than the rest of us.
The idea that money changes people for the worse has been around for a long time. From Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, to Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, we see people who have become indifferent – even contemptuous – towards others as they amass their personal fortunes.
Are these just clichés and stereotypes? What is the truth behind these ideas? In experiments at the University of California, Berkeley, Keltner and Kraus measured the signs of interest and warmth shown by 100 volunteers towards each other. The poorer subjects were more likely to use warmer language, postures and gestures that signal engagement, whereas the richer participants were more stand-offish [Psychological Science Vol 20, p 99].
This relationship between wealth and appreciation of others was confirmed by another experiment where people were asked to rate the emotions expressed in 20 photos of human faces – a standard test of emotional intelligence. Those with the most prestigious jobs were consistently worse at the task. [Psychological Science, Vol 21]
These differences were fluid in the sense that when asked to imagine a conversation with someone higher up the social ladder than themselves, the wealthier participants became immediately better at reading emotions. The researchers concluded that our automatic reactions become immediately more vigilant and mindful of others when we feel subordinate.
There is more local evidence of the growing unpopularity of the wealthy in this study by Rosie Campbell and Phil Cowley , reported here: http://www.yougov.polis.cam.ac.uk/?p=3042
And the Who picture? The seminal track ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ is here, set against images from the growing unrest. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acqQDD3A5CQ&feature=fvst
In these clips, we see the Occupy movement, but the unrest has spread to the UK, France, Netherlands (whose Government collapsed over disagreement on austerity measures) and Greece, where an election threatens to unseat the austerity coalition. Meanwhile Spain approaches crisis.