Less empathy from the super wealthy | Rich Elfers

A recent statistic from the Feb. 2, 2015, Newsweek magazine (p. 13) noted that 50 percent is the “share of the world’s wealth that will be held by the richest 1 percent across the globe by 2016.” Income inequality has grown enormously over the past 30 years. As these numbers suggest, we are facing a growing epidemic of poverty with all its attendant problems, but the rich are in danger, too.

“The yawning gap between rich and poor…is not just bad for the poor. It’s also bad for the rich.” At least so says an article found in The WEEK, dated Dec. 31, 2014. The studies detail the effects of wealth and changes in the brains that occur in the super wealthy. Studies show that enormous prosperity can be bad for your mental health.

According to The WEEK, research out of the University of California—Berkley describes a study by the school’s psychology department where they installed cameras and placed note takers on streets that had four-way signs. The study found that people who drove expensive cars were four times as likely to cut in front of other cars than were people driving cheap cars.

Pedestrians were ignored 46.2 percent of the time by drivers in expensive cars. A related study done in Manhattan found that drivers of high status vehicles tended to double-park at a far greater rate than those with cheaper vehicles.

Another study found that rich people were far more likely to take candy from a jar marked for children as they left a series of scientific testings. Another researcher found the richer a person became, the more likely he was to cheat. A study done by the New York State Psychiatric Institute of 43,000 Americans found that the rich were more likely to shoplift by a wide margin.

Additionally, a study by the nonprofit Independent Sector found that people who made $25,000 or less a year gave away, on average, 4.2 percent of their incomes, while those making more than $150,000 a year gave away only 2.7 percent.

A UCLA neuroscientist, Keely Muscatell, noted in a published paper that, “Wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy. When rich and poor people were shown pictures of children with cancers, poor people’s brains showed more activity than those of the rich.”

According to these studies, inequality triggers chemical reactions in the brains of the privileged few, causing them to be less caring about others. It also makes them less happy.  Mike Norton, a Harvard professor from its Business School, did a study on an investment bank’s millionaires. He found that after a certain point in wealth acquisition, getting richer had no effect on increasing ones’ happiness.

“When these millionaires were asked what would make them happy, all of them said they needed two to three times more than they had to feel happier.”

All these studies indicate that the increasing gap between rich and poor is not just a matter of social justice; it is also, “the enemy of economic success and human happiness.” The rich’s wealth can become as damaging as poverty on the poor.

Fortunately, the rich can read articles like The WEEK’s and find ways to guard against wealth’s ill effects. Some wealthy have done so by giving their wealth away. For the rest of us, wanting to be wealthy may not be as great as it’s cracked up to be. There is danger to both great wealth and great poverty.