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Rich People: Selfish? Cheaters? Psychopaths?

There’s been a flurry of activity over the past year or so with regards to whether rich people have some….”character flaws,” how those flaws play out in real life and what that means for broader society.

Today’s headline reads that One Out of Every Ten Wall Street Employees Is A Psychopath.  But before you start running away thinking that investment bankers are going to kill you with a chainsaw, the definition for psychopath being referenced is as follows:

A clinical psychopath is bright, gregarious and charming…He lies easily and often, and may have trouble feeling empathy for other people. He’s probably also more willing to take dangerous risks — either because he doesn’t understand the consequences, or because he simply doesn’t care.

Based on that definition, some people snarkily made the comment that 10% seemed low.  But compared to what the researchers found for the general population (1% psychopath rate), it’s clearly not (if the 10% figure is to be believed).

This followed on yesterday’s headline that a friend shared with me which stated Wealthy More Likely to Lie, Cheat.  The study that researchers did here was to perform a series of experiments that ranged from determining how likely a rich person was to tell a person interviewing for a job that the job they were applying for was temporary to how likely they were to cheat at a contest in order to win a $50 gift certificate.  The study concluded that:

The “upper class,” as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to raise their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, the research found.

This study was actually conducted by the same group that conducted a related study in late 2011 which concluded that rich people were less empathetic than poor people, and in fact:

Wealthier people don’t have to rely on each other as much. The authors believe this causes differences that show up in psychological studies.  Researchers also suggest people from lower-class backgrounds are better at reading other people’s emotions, and that they are more likely to act altruistically…When poor people see someone else suffering, they have a physiological response that is missing in people with more resources.

And to top it all off, in the summer of last year, a book was released which tried to demonstrate that “Americans with incomes of $70,000-plus each year shoplift 30 per cent more than those earning up to $20,000.”

That’s a lot of dumping on rich people in a short period of time.  And it certainly doesn’t follow the normal narrative of rich people = good, poor people = bad, which is usually accompanied by the idea that the only thing poor people need to do in order to get rich is to adopt the values of the rich.  But what if those values are really messed up?

Personally, I am trying to reserve judgment on these studies.  I haven’t actually looked at their research methodology to examine whether the way each of them was structured was fair and unbiased.  And there are criticisms unsurprisingly.  And whenever anyone starts talking about and defining large groups of people as good vs  bad or positive vs negative, I hesitate, especially since I’ve seen several studies that disparage poor people and I don’t agree with them either.

That being said, to their credit, one of the research groups actually resist  the idea that rich people are inherently bad, but instead “as you rise in the ranks — whether as a person or a nonhuman primate — you become more self-focused.”  It’s an interesting thought actually.  The idea being that as you gain more financial and social stature and independence, you automatically become more “selfish” and tend to do more navel-gazing.

Some theories for why that might be pop to mind (assuming that the researchers findings are indeed accurate).  One would be entitlement, where those who are more affluent have been taught that the rules don’t always apply to them, so therefore they can be broken (without the understanding that breaking them tends to hurt others who follow them).  An additional theory that a friend suggested which I think is potentially instructive is that affluent people tend to think of life as a game to be won, as opposed to something to survive.  For instance, when I take the subway, I’m not content with just getting from point A to point B.  I want to find the optimally fast way of doing so even if that means multiple transfers and squeezing on a crowded car…and in that instance, I’m not even competing against others. I’m solely competing against myself.

But, to me, the most revealing explanation would be that as upper income people tend to become “self-focused” and increasingly financially and socially independent (and sheltered?), their level of trust and the strength of their relationships with broader society tends to decrease as well, since upper income people are less dependent on the rest for their own success (or at least they may perceive that as being so).  Without strong relationships and social (and financial) dependence, it’s doesn’t seem like a stretch to get to the point that upper income people would engage in more dog-eat-dog behavior.  Ironically, the trust issue has been an argument that many have raised with respect to poor communities not trusting other people in their community as crime and violence escalate, leading to a cycle of which is hard to break.  However, it can also be argued that poor communities are more dependent on each other and therefore have stronger bonds which may potentially reduce deviant behavior.

Do you think it’s true that rich people are less empathetic and trustworthy than poor people?  And if so, why do you think so?



4 thoughts on “Rich People: Selfish? Cheaters? Psychopaths?

  1. I think your theory in the last paragraph is really elegant. One thing to add might be that gaining things relative to others puts one in the position of needing to play “defense” to maintain what you have and keep others from getting it. This might occur on the level of actually competing for whatever it is you have OR on the level of explaining/reasoning/justifying why you DESERVE what you have (you earned it!) while those without that thing don’t deserve it (they haven’t earned it! or they just aren’t smart enough!).

    Posted by Jake | February 29, 2012, 1:54 pm
    • Good point re: playing defense. Though the one thing that I struggle with, even in my own explanations is that this would make sense if someone were trying to take something from you…but in many respects, these studies focus on situations where people are stealing / lying / cheating to get even MORE than they had previously!

      Posted by chico | March 1, 2012, 12:35 pm
  2. The last question reminds me of Louis C.K.’s recent downloadable show at the Beacon Theatre. The bit starting around 15:20 where he talks about sitting in 1st class and thinking of giving up his seat to guys in uniform who come on the plane, but that he hasn’t actually done it, “Note even once. I haven’t even come close, really…. but I was proud of myself, for the fact that I even THOUGHT of it…” I think many wealthy people go to charity balls etc. and think themselves very empathetic, whereas if things really went down, it may be different…

    Posted by Mr.Goetchiss | February 29, 2012, 8:33 pm
    • Probably true…I wonder is that just because the bar has been lowered? The idea that if you do the bare minimum and just think about giving, that’s good enough. That being said, charitable giving can cut in multiple ways (i.e., what’s the reason for giving…is it for the recipient to feel better? For the giver to feel better? Both?). Further, there is actually no evidence that I’ve seen that wealthy people give less than lower income people (as a percentage of income). Though, as I remark in my most recent post, it probably makes sense to change the measurement from percentage of income to percentage of disposable income and the results might change rather substantially….

      Posted by chico | March 1, 2012, 12:45 pm

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