How Wealth Reduces Compassion

Source: The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley

I recently stumbled upon this 2012 Scientific American article that makes the point, using the results of various studies, that people’s empathy for others is generally linked to their economic status, hence the subtitle, As riches grow, empathy for others seems to decline.

This is folk wisdom for most, the notion that the poor care more about others in the same boat because they have empathy based on experience. In the US, lower income people donate more to charity in proportion to their income than their higher income fellow citizens.

As the article pointed out, if you’re comfortable, it’s easier to think about others, what they don’t have, and what they may need, to be more caring and compassionate. Right? Wrong. Research proves that “as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline.”

How does this play out in different societies? In Viet Nam, one of the poorest countries in the world at the time of my first visit in 1996, there is very little “old money” because of war, poverty, and dislocation. Most of the wealthy are “new money” or nouveau riche. Many members of this new social class who were not wealthy five, 10, or 15 years ago first shower enormous sums of money on themselves to show others how “successful” they are. Next, especially as they grow older (or are already in that age bracket), many begin to think about legacy and giving back. However, unlike wealth creation, philanthropy is likely to happen in phases.

According to the latest annual Wealth Report released by UK property consultancy, Knight Frank, Viet Nam is expected to have 1,551 ultra-high-net-worth individuals, i.e., those with investable assets of at least $30 million USD, by 2026. In addition, it predicts there will be 114,807 high-net-worth people, i.e., those with a net worth of $1 million USD or more, including their primary residence. This would represent a 59% increase from 2021. (My guess is that these figures are on the conservative side.)

One story recently in the news is about eight philanthropists and their families, including a Vietnamese-American, who pledged $40 million USD to Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV). This case is different because FUV is a binational university. Yes, their generosity is commendable but Fulbright is a brand and one benefit is honor by association. (In addition, one of the donors is a US citizen so his tangible benefit is a tax deduction.)

This new Range Rover will set you back 7,349,000,000 VND ($321,640 USD) in Viet Nam. If you’ve got it, flaunt it!

The first research-based example the author provides is applicable to Viet Nam. I speak from experience as someone who has lived and driven here for nearly 17 years. Every day is an adventure. 😉

Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner ran several studies looking at whether social class (as measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) influences how much we care about the feelings of others. In one study, Piff and his colleagues discreetly observed the behavior of drivers at a busy four-way intersection. They found that luxury car drivers were more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting for their turn at the intersection. This was true for both men and women upper-class drivers, regardless of the time of day or the amount of traffic at the intersection. In a different study they found that luxury car drivers were also more likely to speed past a pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk, even after making eye contact with the pedestrian.

I call it “driving like a boss” and, yes, most people who drive a luxury vehicle do it as if they own the road and not just the six- or seven-figure car they’re driving. There’s a sense of entitlement and superiority over others. I should add that the roads in Viet Nam were not built to accommodate V-8 and V-12 engines (think Lexus, Range Rover, and Rolls-Royce), which must be frustrating to those who own these beautiful machines. It ain’t Canada, the US, Germany, or another country with long stretches of road and high speeds.

It would be interesting to replicate some of this research and conduct other studies about the behavior of the nouveau riche. The results would have implications for charitable giving as part of a nascent culture of philanthropy.

Recommended reading: How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel (2-18) and Good days ahead for Vietnam’s ultra-rich: report (3-22)

Shalom (שלום), MAA

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