Among the (many) things that irritate me is the widespread habit of attributing characteristics or behaviors to whole groups of people. I’m not just talking about obviously reprehensible–and racist–broad-brush assertions about African-Americans or Jews or Muslims, etc., but accusations about “businessmen” or “poor people” or the growing animus against “rich folks.”
Of course cultural differences do exist, and people who have been socialized into specific cultures will reflect those differences . What’s important is to recognize that not every member of Group A will exhibit characteristics that are statistically more prominent among members of Group A.
With that extended caveat, there is growing evidence that affluent people as a group are more likely to exhibit “entitled” behaviors. As an Irish journalist has reported,
DID YOU EVER get the feeling that people driving fancy, expensive cars are more aggressive on the road, more domineering or that they think they own the road?
Well, what if I told you that isn’t just a ‘feeling’ – there is a significant body of research to support the idea that people driving expensive cars are more inconsiderate on the road.
Researchers at the University of California in Berkeley monitored motorist behaviour at a pedestrian crossing in California.
It is illegal for cars in California to not stop for a pedestrian at a zebra crossing but half of the drivers in expensive cars broke that law and didn’t stop for their fellow citizens who were waiting to cross the road.
Perhaps the most interesting thing in that survey is that the very oldest and least expensive vehicles were classified as ‘beater cars’ – In Ireland we would call them ‘bangers’.
Every single one of the people driving a banger stopped at the pedestrian crossing.
It wasn’t simply driving behavior. The article referenced a number of other studies that seemed to confirm that–as a group–wealthier individuals were less considerate, less ethical, and more likely to “cheat, lie and steal.”
In another experiment researchers sat a jar of individually wrapped sweets in front of a group of people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. The participants were explicitly told that the individually wrapped sweets were for children in a nearby laboratory but that they could take some if they wanted.
Were rich people more willing to take sweets meant for children? Of course they were. Rich people took twice as many sweets as the people from the lower income groups.
Other studies have found that rich people were more likely to cheat. In one study, people earning more than €130,000 a year were four times more likely to cheat than someone earning €14,000 a year. They are also less likely to be generous. Students of philanthropy can cite to numerous studies confirming that people on low incomes give proportionately more to charity than rich people do.
In the U.S., differences in social class are overwhelmingly a result of parental income and what the article identifies as a “multitude of structures from good addresses to parent’s social contacts, financial backing and private education.”
But very few of the fortunate recognize the factors that have benefitted them.
Far from being aware of the advantages they have had in life – they think that they succeed because they are the smartest, the hardest working or the most determined.
But why are they more likely to cheat, lie and to cut off pedestrians? And why are they less likely to give to charity?
It may be in part because they are cut off from the reality of poverty – living in an upper-class bubble. But primarily the researchers found that greed is actually viewed more favourably in upper-class communities.
“We reason that increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritise self-interest over others’ welfare and perceive greed as positive and beneficial, which in turn gives rise to increased unethical behaviour,” the researchers concluded.
One of the great drivers of American innovation–and one of the significant protectors of civil liberties–has been a culture that respects individualism and rewards individual effort. Over the years, however, that culture has become corrupted. Not only has much of America lost sight of the “golden mean” between individualism and the common good, the culture has promoted a mythology that allows many beneficiaries of inequality to lie to themselves–to believe that their good fortune is solely the product of their obvious superiority.
We can see this phenomenon rather clearly in Donald Trump and his enablers.
Do all wealthy people wear these ethical blinders? Absolutely not. But these days, far too many do–and the mounting resentment they engender may well result in a blowback that will not discriminate between the good guys and the Trumpists.