Scrooge Lives

scrooge039 The Boston Globe ran an intriguing story on February 19th, under this headline: “Why it matters that our politicians are rich?” Further is carried this subhead: “Science is finding that money actually changes how you think and act—and not for the better.” I have often written about the research that shows that more wealth, after subsistence levels have been reached, does not add to one’s sense of well-being, but I had never seen evidence that more money can make one less of a human being.

The article focuses on the hardening of our largely very rich politicians to human hardship. The members of Congress have a net worth of 9 times that of the average American citizen. And should Mitt Romney (net worth about $250,000,000) become President the average of all our Washington-based elected officials would jump even higher.

Politicians would like us to believe that all this money doesn’t matter in a deeper sense—that what matters is ideas, skills, and leadership ability. Aside from a little extra business savvy, they’re regular people just like the rest of us: They just happen to have more money.

But is that true? In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.

I always know about RHIP—rank has its privileges, but never thought it could have a negative impact. I have often railed against equating money or wealth to happiness because this prominent cultural goal only reinforces the emptiness of having. The shift from Being to having is a central feature of our modern society and partially explains much of the deterioration of the Planet and of the societal fabric and the wholeness of many people’s lives. Having is an inauthentic solution for satisfying the caring that makes us [human] Beings. But I hadn’t suspected that this mode not only added little or nothing, but subtracted from our wholeness and capabilities for Being. And for those who have been following my work, this, in turn, pushes the ultimate goal of flourishing away. I always knew that “Money can’t buy happiness,” but not that it can turn one into a Scrooge.

Britt Peterson, the author, cites work by several academic psychologists as the ground for the article, and that raises a few of the hairs on the back of my neck. I am usually a bit skeptical about the results of psychological lab studies aimed at determining people’s responses to certain kind of stimuli because the lab context is never the same as the real world in which the same subjects would be acting. The reported research does follow, however, rigorous protocols and is as good as you get from these kinds of studies.

Empathy, used in the extract above to characterize the loss of affective feeling for others, is not caring, per se, but is intimately involved in caring. When one attempts to stand in the “shoes” of another, it creates appreciation and acknowledgement that there is relationship between them. That’s always the first stage of caring. The relationship does not have to be full of affective content, as there might be between spouses, or children and their parents or very old friends; it can be neutral and simply reflect a sense that “you” are present in my life and I have to take care of you. “You” can be anyone, including the empathizer, or any non-human thing out there. It could even be the acknowledgement of a mysterious transcendent object that has entered your consciousness and needs to be cared for. Caring for doesn’t always mean taking action immediately; deliberately or knowingly ignoring something that has entered your consciousness is an acknowledgment of the presence of the “other,” and presumes that some action will be coming If it never comes, then there will be a hole in one’s life that makes flourishing problematic.

Getting back to the article, it is not difficult to extend the arguments to explain why very wealthy people frequently support ideologically pure causes. The ideology becomes the object of attention rather than the human beings that are involved for better or worse. Ideologies are after all just things (reified ideas) that one owns. The more money one has, the more of the ideologies he or she can own. The implications of these findings are serious and negative for sustainability.

We have to move closer to Being and the caring on which is is grounded, not farther away. To some degree, I discount the psychological findings reported in the article because I do not believe that we have some intrinsic fixed and permanent human nature. Our behavior and the identities it signals are learned from our actions over our lives; we become what we have done routinely. If our identities are the result of learning, not an intrinsic nature, then we can unlearn them, but often only with great difficulty. Not only is it hard to teach an old dog new tricks, it’s also hard to unlearn any of the old ones.

There are a couple of bright sides to all this in the Globe article. Peterson writes:

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS of realizing that our wealthy leaders may be more callous, self-absorbed, and self-justifying than the people they represent? For one thing, it suggests that the constant calls for candidates to release tax returns and disclose their assets are not so petty after all.

Beyond underscoring the importance of disclosure, however, the new research also offers some hope—not just for Rich Uncle Moneybags, but for you, if you happen to win a Senate election. As Galinsky explained, power doesn’t necessarily turn everyone cruel: It merely reveals their true colors. With power comes disinhibition, which can have the counterintuitive effect of turning a run-of-the-mill billionaire into a major philanthropist. “Power…frees you to act like your true self,” Galinsky said. “So let’s say the lascivious become even more flirtatious, but those people that are concerned with compassionate goals become even more compassionate and even more generous.”

I don’t quite agree with this because I do not believe that anything like a “true self” exists in hiding until enough money comes along to open the door to the closet where it has been cooped up. One acts on top of a cognitive structure that has been built up cumulatively. If you are really a philanthropist, you would have begun to learn how before you got your billions or started to soon after that happened.

Peterson writes further,

And there’s more hope for rich or powerful people who want to avoid becoming insensitive jerks: Compassion, at least, can be taught. In a 2010 study, Kraus, Keltner, and several of their colleagues showed subjects one of two videos—a neutral clip from “All the King’s Men” or a short documentary about child poverty—before administering a written “compassion test” and an interpersonal test of compassion in which the subject had to divide a set of tasks of varying lengths between himself and a partner. Although the subjects with higher class status tended to assign the longer tasks to the partner, the researchers found that watching the child-poverty video canceled out the effect of social class.

Once again, my skepticism about psychological experiments makes me leery of making too much of this. Learning comes through doing in the model of human cognition and behavior I follow. Recent work of the formation of habits supports this model. (More on this is coming soon on this blog.) One exposure in a lab cannot produce lasting learning. Do Kraus, Keltner et al. expect to show the video of child poverty to the subjects every time they are to act in real life? Of course not. If anyone truly wants to change routine behavioral patterns including the affective context, they will have to undertake a very serious and often fruitless rehabilitation program. Dickens had the advantages of writing fiction. Real Scrooges are unlikely to have such an epiphany or even be visited by ghosts.