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The Nasty Rich

Are rich people really nastier than poor people? That’s what Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner set out to discover a few years back.

They ran a number of studies looking at whether social class (as measured by wealth, occupational prestige and education) influenced how much we cared about the feelings of others.

In one study, they videotaped the behavior of drivers at a busy four-way intersection and discovered that drivers of luxury cars were more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting for their turn. This was true for both men and women upper-class drivers, regardless of the time of day or the amount of traffic. In another study, they found that fancy car drivers were also more likely to speed past a pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk, even after making eye contact with him or her.

Next, P&K turned to Monopoly. They put two average income middle-class students in a windowless room and gave student #1 $2,000 from the Monopoly bank, plus $200 each time he passed Go, told him he could roll two dice at a time, and gave him the racecar to move round the board. They then gave student #2 $1,000, plus $100 each time he passed Go, told him he could only roll one die at a time, and gave him the thimble to move round the board.

The students were then videotaped playing for fifteen minutes.

After a few moments, student #1 was of course pulling way ahead.

At first, #1 acknowledged the extreme inequality between him and #2 with a series of awkward smirks. But very soon, he started whizzing round the board, snaffling up properties and shoveling up oodles of rent. As he went, he seemed to balloon in size, spreading his legs out to both ends of the table. Soon, he began to taunt #2 by smacking his racecar down each time, ending his turns with a loud bang. At four minutes in, he picked up #2’s thimble and moved it for him. As the game neared its end, #1 moved his racecar even faster. The taunting was over now: he was all efficiency, refusing to meet #2’s gaze. His expression stone cold as he grabbed the loser’s cash.

P&K repeated this experiment dozens of times, always with almost identical results.

In another study, P&K looked at empathy. One way to measure this is via activation of the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen and responds to emotional inputs. Electrodes were placed on the chests of a group of rich students and a group of poor students, who were then exposed to pictures of starving children. The vagus nerves of the poor students became hyperactive, whereas those of the rich students hardly responded at all. In other words, they felt almost no empathy, which is also the major trait of sociopathy: “an almost complete lack of conscience, remorse, guilt or shame; manipulative, deceitful, egocentric.”

Who’s nasty now?

Adapted from David Stansfield’s book, Got a Couple of Minutes? Two Hundred 500-Word Stories.

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David Stansfield is a former PBS writer-producer and the author of “Take Nothing For Granted,” a thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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