It’s Not Your Imagination: Science Just Proved Rich People Are Assholes

January 10, 2018

The rich are different from you and me, and it’s not just because they have more money.

There’s a famous story about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote my all-time favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, and Ernest Hemingway, whose books I am still bitter about being forced to read in school. One night in a bar, Fitzgerald supposedly said to Hemingway, “You know, the rich are different from you and me,” to which Hemingway allegedly replied, “Yes. They’ve got more money.”

Fitzgerald and Hemingway were a classic example of what we would now call “frenemies.” In addition to the above deliciously snarky exchange, there are tales of them actually comparing the size of their penises. But as fun as this story is, it didn’t really happen.

Fitzgerald’s apocryphal quote is actually based on a passage from his short story, “The Rich Boy,” and it’s too good not to repeat in full here.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

I grew up in a home where “people with money” were viewed with great suspicion – not that we knew many of them. To me, having money meant having more than one bathroom in your house, or buying a car that was less than 10 years old. Money, my grandfather often told me, was the root of all evil, and I grew up thinking that was his original saying. Maybe that’s why I loved Fitzgerald so much: he didn’t trust rich people, either.

No doubt, Fitzgerald would not have been one bit surprised by the findings of a number of recent studies that seemingly confirm his characterization of the wealthy. In a study published in 2012, psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, of the University of California, Berkeley, ran conducted seven experiments exploring whether social class influences how much we care about other people’s feelings. They determined social class not only according to income, but also by how much education people had, and how prestigious their jobs were.

Two experiments had to do with whether upper-class folks were more likely than lower-class people to break the law when driving (yes, they were), one studied whether they were more likely to lie in a negotiation (again, yes), one looked at whether they were more willing to cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (surprise, yes!), and another study gauged rich people’s likelihood of endorsing unethical behavior at work (what do you think? Yup.). One study even showed that upper-class people were more likely to hoard candy meant for children and keep it for themselves. Taking candy from babies…literally.

According to Piff and Keltner, “upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.” But it’s not just greed behind the bad behavior of rich people. They’re also less compassionate than people who grew up without silver spoons in their mouths (an expression my mother was fond of using in my formative years).

When asked whether they agreed with certain statements showing compassion toward others, such as “I often notice people who need help,” and “it’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable,” lower-income people were more likely to say that yes, they resonated with these statements, while wealthy people were more likely to disagree.

It’s tempting to look for other explanations for these results, besides income and status. Can rich people really be that bad across the board? #NotAllRichPeople, right? But even when researchers controlled for factors such as gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, the findings held up.

In our current political climate, it’s hard not to look to the current President of the United States as the quintessential example of what being rich and privileged does to people. Of course, Donald Trump didn’t start out as a billionaire with gold toilets – but he did grow up wealthy, attending private schools his whole life and recieving a “small loan” of $1 million from his father upon graduating from college.

When I entered into a relationship with someone from a very different social class than me, my brother warned me to be be careful. “Rich people aren’t like us,” he said, sounding exactly like my beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald. We were on the phone, so I was free to roll my eyes as I dismissed his concerns.

A couple of years later, when my heart and life were both in tatters, I wondered if he’d been right. I couldn’t help but think of this passage, near the end of The Great Gatsby, when our narrator Nick Carraway sums up the characters of Tom and Daisy – the rich couple whose behavior has led to the ruin of several lives.

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Whatever you think of Fitzgerald’s take on the rich, one thing is indisputable: science seems to have proved him right, all these years later.

Image via wie-hund-und-katze.com.

Comment: Do you think money makes a difference as to how people behave?

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