In my great aunt’s youth, she babysat a young girl who came from a very wealthy family. The child’s name was Jeannie. During Jeannie’s playtime with other children, my great aunt would supply treats, such as cookies, or cupcakes, for the children to share. Jeannie however, always had other ideas. She would sweep her arms out over the goodies and cry gleefully: “All for Jeannie!” The phrase stuck firmly in my family’s memory, and was naturally passed on to me as a catchphrase to describe people looking after Number One.
So it was with some amusement that this phrase popped into my head today after checking out a friend’s Facebook post linking to a Wired Science article: “Greed Isn’t Good: Wealth Could Make People Unethical.” My academic friend took a slightly cynical angle and presented the article with the newsflash approach of : ”Controversial new study” suggests that bears s*** in woods. With that, my interest was piqued. Thanks B., you know who you are.
The article by Brandon Keim refers to the findings of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and to be fair, does leave one wondering why the Academy felt the need to actually run an experiment on what we already know. Rich people tend to be more rude than their poorer counterparts. The study went about by first testing behaviours in traffic, using the makes and models of cars as a wealth gauge. As one would expect, rudeness rose with the socioeconomic status of the drivers. This we already knew. In fact, it’s a well known fact that most Mercedes’ don’t actually have indicators at all, as they are clearly hardwired with the “Moses effect”, parting seas of traffic by sheer presence.
The study went on to test ethical scenarios, such as when given change for a $20 when one gave $10, and lying to candidates about the true term of a job contract. In all cases the result was the same. Those with higher socioeconomic status are more likely to behave unethically, whatever the experiment. Which, again, we already knew. I definitely knew about the driving drama. I know that the rich lady is going to try and cut ahead of me in line, or mow me down using her child’s Hummer Buggy. I also know that Mr. Five Fold Italian Silk Tie with the very deep yuppie voice is going to all but absorb me with his steroidal biceps at the bar.
There’s a T-Shirt in here somewhere:
Money Makes me Rude! FACT. Go Cry to your Mother.
But I digress. What is interesting about the article is that it mentions the fact that in the various studies, it is not only those that are actually wealthy that behave badly, it is also those who are told to pretend to be wealthy. It also mentioned that talking about the benefits of greed caused the less wealthy to think more unethically, suggesting that: “the experience of higher social class has a causal relationship to unethical decision-making and behavior.”
Paul Piff of the Academy says this: “…unethical behavior in the study was driven both by greed, which makes people less empathic, and the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society. It insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms.”
This is all very well, but I would introduce one point. It appears to me that this breaks down the higher up in the wealth chain you go. Many of the uber-rich, such as Hollywood actors and those born into massive family wealth, do not exhibit these characteristics. This is not to say that they cannot exhibit these characteristics, but simply that it appears to be able to evolve. The truly rude seem to have a “I used to be like you but now am so much more” attitude. They haven’t moved that far beyond the rest of us lowly unwashed really, and somewhere inside them they recognise that it would take very little for the little guy beside them to be just like them, too.
According to Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota as quoted in the article: “This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead.” I would argue that the rudeness itself has a hint of desperation about it, albeit one that is quickly squirrelled away into the subconscious. They feel somehow that by over asserting themselves, they will secure their place in life with greater aplomb. They become increasingly terrified that they will lose what they have; “all they have” having taken on a material, financial flavour. If you find yourself at the receiving end of it, and are able to step back and watch it very very calmly, you’ll find it quite sad. Or maybe, if you just think about being very wealthy, you’ll actually be able to challenge them at their own game.