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Are Rich People Less Caring, Or More Defensive?

women giving food to homeless man with sign
photo by Ed Yourdon

How do we measure empathy? We can observe behavior, but when one person puts money in a panhandler’s cup while another person walks past without reacting, what do their differing reactions tell us about how they feel?

In a recent column in The New York Times, psychologist Daniel Goleman posits that “A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power.” In other words, there is an empathy gap between those with more power and those with less, where power is often measured in terms of class and wealth.

This discussion is hardly new, however. Mano Singham, a theoretical nuclear physicist and adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University, drew similar inferences last year in response to a study examining charitable giving patterns by geography and income level. Back in 2007, The New York Times’ City Room blog looked at the tipping habits of the rich and not-so-rich, and did not find that the rich suffered by comparison. There was no shortage of comments on any of these pieces, ranging from personal anecdote to pointed criticism.

Though I don’t meet anybody’s definition of “super rich,” and I started out with no money at all, I have been successful enough in business to be counted by the authors of the study Goleman cites as one of the less empathetic wealthy. I never (well, virtually never) give money to someone holding a sign on a street or approaching my car when I wait for a traffic light at the end of a freeway exit ramp. But I do tend to tip 20 percent or more at restaurants, and I make a policy of never passing up a Girl Scout selling cookies - and I don’t even like the cookies.

As I acquired success, did I lose my empathy? Or is it more complicated than that?

I tend to think it is more complicated, and I have more than just my own self-perception on which to base my thoughts. Working with affluent families for more than 25 years has given me a lot of opportunity to reflect on when, and whether, people choose to act charitably.

Are people status-conscious? Absolutely. Humans, however, are hardly alone in this tendency. All sorts of creatures, from wolves to gorillas to whitetail deer, have social hierarchies. Such structures are a basic part of evolutionary biology. You climb the mountain and wait for someone to try to push you off the peak. Those who can’t push you off will often try to curry your favor instead. Give money - not even necessarily a stupendous sum - to a school or other charity, and that organization may abruptly recognize your wisdom by asking you to join an advisory board or become a trustee (the better to induce further gifts, of course).

High-status individuals are besieged by implicit and explicit requests. Individuals who move from lower-power social tiers to higher-power ones find themselves much more popular and much more appreciated than they used to be, even though they feel themselves to be the same people they always were. They just have more money (or, in the world of politics, more favors) to hand out. They know full well that if their status disappeared, so would most of their new admirers.

When they resist appeals for help, does it make them uncaring - or just defensive?

Personal circumstance might play a role, too. It is relatively easy for someone without much money to lump people who have more into a catchall category, “the rich.” But there are many ways rich people became so. Some started with advantageous backgrounds and earned their own fortunes to build upon what they received; some earned fortunes without many advantages. Luck is often part of the story, but sometimes it is a small part and sometimes, as with a lottery winner or the recipient of a large inheritance, it is the entire story. Some people marry into money or marry someone who is good at getting it. Some find divorce a greater source of wealth than marriage. There are rich people who have known genuine hardship, and others who have never experienced hunger or sickness or physical danger.

Do all these people empathize with others in the same way?

In most advanced economies, rich people also pay far more in taxes than others, both as a percentage of their income and in absolute terms. I suspect much of the research on the percentage of income donated to charity focuses on pre-tax income. But if we consider taxes to be an involuntary “donation,” backed by the force of law but primarily for the benefit of society as a whole rather than the individual taxpayer, I suspect the numbers in many countries would skew radically in favor of the wealthy as the generous class. Rich people are well aware that they pay taxes, and for many of them, this knowledge affects the way they make charitable decisions.

Very few rich people spend most of their money on yachts and vacations. Those who do tend not to stay rich. Mostly, affluent people save their money and invest it in various forms. Just because they don’t give it away immediately does not mean they do not plan to give it away at some point. Lots of charity occurs at death, and lots more happens late in life, after other personal goals have been satisfied.

Is there an empathy gap? Quite possibly. No matter how thoughtful and generous you might be as an individual, it is hard to fully appreciate another person’s struggles if you have never been in a similar position.

Then again, you don’t hear much about poor people suffering from donor fatigue. They don’t tend to attract many sycophants or supplicants. Nobody comes to them saying, “Now that you have money, you think you’re better than us. Prove us wrong by giving us a share.”

For me, it comes down to what I think I can do at the moment. I can reward a Girl Scout’s efforts while picking up a few cookies that my co-workers will enjoy. I can tip waiters and waitresses well, knowing that the few extra dollars mean more to them than they do to me. In both of these contexts, I see myself as reasonably generous, but I am also rewarding initiative and service that I admire.

I have turned down many people who approach me on the street. At certain intersections, I know I will always be greeted by one - but only one - individual begging for money. In my Florida neighborhood, there appears to be a system; to avoid “service gaps” or competitive begging, the panhandlers decide among themselves who will work a given spot at what time. I have no interest in encouraging this sort of initiative, or in sustaining the sort of unproductive dependency this practice implies. In some eyes, I am sure this demonstrates my lack of empathy.

Humans are complicated animals, but we are animals nonetheless. Our tendency as a species to create hierarchies and to seek favor from those who hold power is not going to go away.

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