Why are rich people such jerks?
The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a professional journal, is just the latest in a series of studies demonstrating that wealthier people may not be as nice as others:
- A 2006 study by University of Minnesota researchers, "The Psychological Consequences of Money," found that being reminded of money makes people less likely to ask for help or provide help to others.
- People in elevated social positions were less likely to feel compassion or distress over another person's suffering, according to a 2008 study, led by a University of Amsterdam professor, called "Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others." A study last year by University of California researchers called "Social Class as Culture" came to similar conclusions: that people of lower social classes tended to be more empathetic and more compassionate. The less income and education people had, the researchers said, the more likely they were to be attuned to others.
- The UC researchers found in an earlier study, "Social Class, Sense of Control and Social Explanation," that people of lower economic and social status felt less in control of their lives than people who were better off. The former were more likely to blame circumstances for events than richer people, who were more likely to explain success as the result of individual effort and failure as the result of individual faults.
All of which paints a picture of the wealthy as selfish, greedy, entitled and out of tune with others. The various researchers floated theories about their conclusions — among which was the idea that the rich don't need to rely as much on the social contract. That's the connection that says, "I'll look out for you, because I may need you to look out for me."
What concerns me about this research is not that the rich are getting a bad rap. What concerns me, as a personal-finance columnist, is that some people already use their bad opinions of the rich as an excuse not to take care of themselves financially.
If you believe being wealthy makes you greedy or evil, how likely are you to invest in your future and build your net worth? If you feel that getting rich is a matter of luck rather than effort, aren't you far more likely to waste your money on lottery tickets and get-rich-quick schemes than you are to contribute to your RRSPs?
If money really does make people go bad, and I'm not convinced that it does, then the solution isn't avoiding wealth — it's avoiding the bad behaviour. That means:
- As your wealth and income grow, so should your charitable giving. Giving back is a great way to acknowledge your blessings and battle self-centredness.
- Remember that no one is self-made. You can enjoy your accomplishments without forgetting that other people had a role in getting you where you are today: the parents who diapered you, the teachers who taught you, the mentors who guided you, the people who cheered you on.
- Ethics matter. Character is who we are when no one is looking, and it's revealed in how we treat the people around us. If you're religiously inclined, you might reflect on the admonition in Luke 12:48, "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more." If you're not religiously inclined, keep in mind that what goes around, comes around.
- The law matters too, by the way. You can make an argument that our justice system works differently for the rich than for the poor, but the vehicle code doesn't care who has the fanciest car. Give pedestrians, and the vehicle on the right, the right of way.
Liz Weston is the web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy." Click here to find Weston's mostrecent articles.
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