This is Your Brain on Money
Guest: Paul Piff. June 29th, 2013. Transcribed by Curtis Whiting.
Coiro: Do you recognize this quote? “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, cynical where we are trustful in a way that, unless you were born rich is very difficult to understand.”
That is the often misquoted F. Scott Fitzgerald, from his 1926 short story, The Rich Boy. And, one reason his quote gets tossed around so much, accurately or not, is that, as a culture that worships money and then despises it and then does everything in between, we’re trying to constantly assess what money has to do with personal character. That’s gone a lot further than Idle philosophical wondering. It’s actually a field of study. Today, I am welcoming back to our show, a scholar spearheading the research in the attitudes of the rich toward the rest of us.
What does money do to the way that you act? Paul Piff was on our show last year, when some of his research first went public. It is becoming prominent again. This time with his research being featured on the Public Broadcasting System, on PBS. So, I thought, Paul, it was a good time to have you back. Welcome to the studio.
Piff: It’s great to be hear. Thanks so much for having me on. It’s a real pleasure.
Coiro: It’s fascinating work. I’m afraid that the first thing that jumps to the fore is judgment about it and around it. I know that, for example, because you’re studying this at UC Berkeley, there are a load of clichés about, “Well, you’re part of the intellectual elite. You’re part of the Liberals. You’re setting out to slam the rich.”
Pure research needs to be defined to get its respect. Let’s start with defining what we’re talking about, here. Who are the rich.
Piff: It depends. We don’t ever really define people as rich versus poor. We do a lot of different things to measure what people have in terms of their socio-economic status. We do that in a fee different ways. That builds on a history of this work that’s been done in sociology. We’re using basic standards of the field, which is, a person’s educational attainment, the kind of job that they have, but most importantly, how much money they have. We measure that continuously.
What I mean by that is, we don’t ask someone to check a box that tells us “Are they rich, are they poor?” We ask them to tell us how much money they make on an annual basis, or how much money they have to their name, and then just use that to associate it to a bunch of different outcomes that we study.
Like, their levels of compassion, how generous they are to others. How they behave in a variety of different ethical settings. So, it’s really different kinds of associations that we’re looking at.
Coiro: There seems to be an assumption on the part of some people who receive the information about what you’re doing, that this is setting out to pass judgment on the rich. That there’s an inherent bias against people who have more. Let’s clear the record on that. Why would you study this?
Piff: There are really great, legitimate theoretically interesting questions about how it is that this kind of structural variable that a lot of people would say exists outside of the mind – something like your social class – If you asked a sociologist, they would say “That’s something that exists in neighborhoods. That’s something that exists in institutions. That’s not something that exists in a person’s psychology.” – What we’re showing is, not only does this variable exist, but it has a huge effect on how people see themselves, on how people see the world, and how people behave toward one another.
That’s a legitimate theoretically interesting psychological question. Then there’s the additional question of passing value judgments. That’s a difficult terrain. I should say that there are eighty to ninety years of research that have been done on the pathology of poverty: The culture of poverty, mapping out how poverty, in some cases, relates to violent criminality and all sorts of negative things, whether it’s disease or obesity, different kinds of cardio-vascular illness. A lot of people have talked about the negative things associated with poverty.
What we’re doing is showing something about the human character and the human condition that suggest that poverty is not all bad, if you will, but there are certain strengths to human character and human behavior that actually emerge out of situations of extreme threat and uncertainty.
Coiro: That’s a really interesting contrast. I have a friend who wrote her thesis on the language around studying poverty. We know that’s been established as a field of study for a long time. Do you think part of the reaction that you get to your work is because we’re not talking about, now, the disenfranchised and the less powerful, the people who, by definition are more powerful?
Piff: That’s part of it. We’re actually turning a lens to studying the elite. Which, maybe historically, in this country, is not a group that you want to study and pass judgment on, because, after all, they maybe embody what it means to have fulfilled the American dream, in the meritocracy that we may or may not live in. I think that that is part of the instinctual reaction that people have to this work. But, it’s important to keep in mind that we document a lot of different things associated with different income groups. It’s not just one pattern of behavior that unilaterally proves to be the case. We do a lot of different things to test and show that it’s not simply the case that, if you’re rich, you behave this way. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
We’re looking at average differences between different groups. There are also lots of exceptions to the rules that we find. I think that there are a lot of different qualifiers to be taken into mind.
Coiro: This is fascinating to me: The Monopoly Game. Talk to me about how the Monopoly Game test is set up.
Piff: That’s a great question. Let me take a step back and say that when you are doing experiments, and after all, I’m an experimental social psychologist, one of the things that’s really important to look at is, what it is that’s causing what. For instance, I could look at how much money a person has and correlate that, or associate that with things that they do. And someone could say, “Is it wealthy people that behave this way? Or is it people who behave this way who become wealthy?”
One of the things that we want to do is show you that if we make you feel wealthy, even if you come from an actually impoverished background, that psychological experience of actually having more than someone else, can make you do a lot of different surprising things. The Monopoly experiment really emerged out of that basic insight. What we did was rig a game of Monopoly, where two strangers are playing a game of Monopoly, which we all know about, that all-American game, but what we’ve done is change one thing. And that is, that not everyone starts with an equal playing field. One person, through the flip of a coin, starts out with a lot more money. He gets to roll two dice instead of one. Starts out with a much nicer playing piece. When they pass Go, they collect a lot more money. Basically we’re manipulating inequality in the situation of a game.
We just looked at what happened when people, when a person was put in a rich-like position versus a poor-like position, how that changed the way that they behaved toward one another. We found a lot of really interesting things, both in terms of how people behaved and in terms of what they said they believed. One of the things we did in this game was videotape and look at what their posture, their bodies do, in the game. That rich person, that person that started out with more money, they actually become a lot more expansive. They start taking up a lot more space. When they move their piece around the board, they smack the board a lot louder. We measured volume.
They are really exerting, or showcasing, their increased status in the game, through the embodiment of power. They’re embodying power.
They eat more pretzels. We’ve got a bowl of pretzels positioned off to the side and we can watch how many pretzels people eat. They’re more likely to consume without necessarily attuning to what the other person’s thinking of them. They’re more likely to look away from the other person. They’re not smiling as much. They’re doing a whole lot of things that tell us, the experimenters, that they’re not really engaged in the interaction, but more focused on getting ahead and competing.
Now, what’s really interesting is afterwards. After just fifteen minutes of play time, we can ask the rich or the poor people about their experience in the game, how their feeling, and what they think they did or didn’t do to deserve what happened at the end, how much money they had, property they ended up owning.
I think what was most striking to me and my collaborators, was that, when we asked that rich person, who, through the flip of a coin, was just determined to be rich, they hadn’t actually done anything to deserve that position, it was random, they actually told us that they felt a little more deserving of the fact that they’d won the game. They felt more entitled to that money that they’d been given at the beginning, that advantage.
I think the insight that that yields is that people, whether or not they actually did something to deserve a position of privelege in society or in a game of Monopoly – Again, this game of Monopoly is meant to represent a dynamic that maybe exists in the real world, in that position of privelege, a person makes sense of privilege by saying I deserve it. They rarely attune to the things that are external to them, that contributed to their position of privilege, or position of advantage. That speaks a little to this basic psychological dimension of entitlement, that in other experiments I’ve been measuring fairly consistently, as a function of wealth.
Coiro: That goes to Ann Richards’ famous quote about “Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”
Coiro: Not being able to assess what it is you actually brought to the team.
Piff: That’s a basic outcome of psychology, that people are rarely attuned to all of the different things that contributed to them being in the position that they’re in. That’s a universal feature of the ways that we explain where we are. But, it’s really interesting when applied to advantage and disadvantage. Because it suggests that the wealthier you are, the more entitled to that wealth you feel. And thus, perhaps, the less likely you are to feel responsible for the welfare of other people in the social environment or in you external environment.
Coiro: As a researcher, how do you account for what each individual person in the experiment brings. For example, some of these people might well already be rich. Some of them may be naturally obsequious. Some of them may naturally take up more space, regardless of which side of the board they are playing. How do you allow for all that?
Piff: We measure all of that. But, the most critical thing is – This is a standard technique used in experiments, you randomly assign people to condition. The basic idea is that if you’ve got a group of people and you randomly assign them to, say, a position of being rich or a position of being poor, whatever differences between people are going to equalize across conditions.
So, if you see an important difference in one group as opposed to another, you chalk that up to the thing that you’ve manipulated. In our case, position in the game and not any individual differences that might exist within condition.
Coiro: I was impressed. I watched the PBS piece. I loved the attention you paid to the tiniest detail, for example, the person who starts at the fiscal disadvantage, also has to use the old shoe to get around the board and the other person gets the sports car.
Piff: Gotta symbolize. There are so many emblems of status and power that we regularly encounter in the real world. The clothes a person wears, the kind of car they drive, the kind of shoes they wear. In Monopoly, it’s this great game that we’re all so accustomed to, that in many ways embodies the American capitalistic inclination, this ideology of self-interest and competition. It was really important to come up with different ways to symbolize that in the game.
Coiro: If you’re a pedestrian, why should you care about the person who’s approaching the walkway you’re about to cross into is rich or not? This is part of the research that is just fascinating, that Paul Piff works on at UC Berkeley. Paul, this was something that struck me out of – I’ve made a couple of references to the PBS segment that brought you back into my awareness about the work that you were doing – We first had Paul on the show when his work made all kinds of headlines about how money can affect your attitudes toward other people. It’s a hot button in this society. In fact, I’m trying to recall where that happened in proximity to the presidential election. Because, that was in everybody’s face, with a candidate who tried to relate to NASCAR friends by saying “Some of my best friends own teams.”
In this PBS piece, we see, in the beginning, a piece of video where someone approaches a crosswalk. Many of the cars come to a respectful stop, which is the law, here in California. And then, a car dashes across the crosswalk, despite the proximity of that pedestrian. And that is a higher-end car. It turns out that there is some consistency in those results.
Piff: We ran a couple of different studies to look at this. These studies were run at a time when we were running a lot of studies in the lab. One of the big questions that I had was, if we’re documenting differences between the wealthy and the poor in laboratory studies, where could we go in the quote, unquote real world, in the field, and look at possible differences in whether or not people play by the rules. One of the things we thought of was: What if we looked at driving behavior, and use the kind of car that a person drives to index their wealth. Which turns out is an amazing index of how much money a person has. We found really strong correlations between the car a person drives and how much money they have. It’s a great way, a great index of measuring a person’s wealth.
We wanted to document whether or not people of different statuses, who drive different kinds of cars were more or less inclined to break the law or abide by California Vehicle Code. So, we ran a few different studies. One of which, that you’re referring to, we actually posed a pedestrian. This was an R.A. of mine, who works in the lab. They were in the study. They approach the crosswalk at a certain time as a vehicle is approaching, and we had coders, literally hiding behind bushes, outside of driver’s direct line of sight, coding the status of a vehicle – they’ve been trained to do this – by assigning it a value to indicate how expensive and high status that vehicle was. So, a new BMW, a new Mercedes, that’d be a relatively high-status car. A beat-up Honda from the 80s might be a one or two on our scale, so a relatively low-status car. And then we just correlated that with whether or not that car, that driver, stopped for a pedestrian or not.
We found really amazing trends and very statistically significant ones. We ran this study on hundreds of different cars, on a lot of different days. We controlled for a lot of different things: The time of day, the amount of traffic, all sorts of things. And, there was this huge association between high-status drivers being most likely to just blast through the crosswalk without coming to a stop. That’s a really interesting trend. It suggests that wealth differences in terms of people’s everyday patterns of behavior might manifest in all sorts of subtle ways that we don’t necessarily know about. It’s an important disclaimer to make: I don’t think it’s the case that you’ve got someone who’s in that Mercedes and they’re thinking to themselves, “Okay, I really want to screw over this pedestrian, so I’m just going to drive through the crosswalk.” I think what we’re basically measuring is that their simply less attuned to other people around them. They’re a little more self-focused. A little more attuned to what their individual goals are: Where I need to go, where I need to be, I’ve got a limited amount of time in my day. Those kinds of things. And, as a result, being a little less attuned to the needs of other people in their social environments compared to drivers who are from lower socio-economic groups, who are driving those lower-status cars. I think we’re just measuring them being a little more attuned to other people.
Coiro: I wish we could lotion that disclaimer over this whole hour. Because, when I was reading up on some your work, I was reminded, you always had to take the statistic and then measure it against the anecdotal. Anecdotally, in my million-year-old car, one night, and in a bad place, I rear-ended, just out of sheer distraction and dismay, I rear-ended a very nice car. No damage. It was at a stoplight. Nobody really got hurt. The guy who got out was wearing a suit that I would not even begin to afford. I understood from the moment he looked at me, that he knew I was in a bad place. And his wife or companion was saying “Well, get her number. Get her information.” And he said, “Look, just let this go. Let it go.” And the reason that came into my mind was because I just want to set this up not as an hour of bashing a particular group of people, but of trying to understand how our minds work in the way that we relate to each other.
Piff: That’s a really beautiful point, Angie. I think it’s absolutely important to, as you said, blanket this whole hour with that important acknowledgment. With regards to that point, a bashing, one: keep in mind that these are correlations. Sometimes they’re statistically significant but they’re small, and that’s not to say that there’s not an effect, but the effect isn’t categorical. It’s not a black and white thing.
And also, there are a lot of things that make people behave in a lot of different ways. If you’ve got, say, someone who cheats on a test, there are a lot of different things that may or may not have contributed to that one individual cheating in that particular case. What we’re finding is not that wealth is more likely to make you cheat than other kinds of things. It’s just that if you have more money, you’re a little more inclined to do these unethical acts, or less altruistic things, or to be less compassionate.
Wealth is one contributor to this pattern of behavior, but by no means the singular influence or the singular cause.
Coiro: Another bit of research involved letting someone, waiting in a room, know that a particular bowl of food was set aside for children, and seeing what they did with that bowl of food.
Piff: This is all part of a line of work that I did with Dacher Keltner, and some other colleagues at the University of Toronto and UC Berkeley, that really just tried to look at who it is that’s more or less likely to abide by certain normative rules or ethical standards of conduct. In that particular study, which I call the “Candy Taking Study,” we didn’t look at how wealthy people actually were, we actually made people feel wealthy or poor. This is one of those experiments that we run, where we manipulate how well off a person feels, and then measured something as a result. So, we’ve got two different groups that come into the lab. We manipulate how much they think they have by having them compare themselves to the richest person or the poorest person in society. If you do that, if you think of yourself in relation to someone who’s got a lot more than you, you’re going to feel a little less well off. If you think of yourself in comparison to someone who’s homeless or unemployed, has little money, you’re going to feel temporarily a little better off. That’s it. That’s really simple. That’s the manipulation. Fifteen minutes later, we asked participants to enter the hall, where they’re greeted by an experimenter who’s holding this jar of candy that they’ve specifically and explicitly designate as being reserved for children, who are participating in a developmental study, nearby.
And then, we just monitor how many pieces of candy participants take. We do this in a few different ways. What we found was that participants that were in that group that were made to feel a little better off, they compared themselves to someone who was worse off than they were, financially, so relatively speaking, they’re feeling a little better off than other people, they took two times as much candy as did people who were made to feel somewhat worse off, suggesting that there’s this psychological experience of having more – I think counter intuitively – this experience of having more that actually makes people want to collect more for themselves. It’s not the case that you feel like you have more than others, and as a result, you become more inclined to share. No, no, no, no, no.
You feel like you have more, and thus you want more. It’s the want of wealth. Wealth doesn’t breed compassion, per se, or a focus on others. Wealth actually seems to bring with it a desire to aggregate. That’s a really interesting psychological effect.
Coiro: It’s fascinating to me this actually dovetails with a conversation we had with Anat Shenker-Orsorio, who studies political messaging. Her similar work talked about studies where, if you make people aware of numbers and money before a conversation occurs, they move their chair further away from other people, they occupy less space that they would have to share with other people, they tend to make more – If I have to use the judgmental word – More selfish decisions in the subsequent conversation. That’s fascinating.
Piff: That’s great. There’s work by a colleague of mine. She’s at University of Minnesota, her name is KATHLEEN VAZ. And, she does stuff – And, I think what your point brings to mind is that there are a lot of different people working on really related issues, but by taking slightly different approaches to the one we take – So KATHLEEN VAZ, she does something really simple. She has people sit in front of a computer, the screensaver for which has either drifting dollar bills falling down the screen or I think it might be fish or something. She just kind of reminds people of the idea of money and then sees what that does to their behavior. I think those are the experiments that you’re referring to. One of them, a simple reminder of money, makes someone, ten minutes later, be less likely to pick up pens to help out someone who drops a big box of them on the floor, than people who weren’t reminded of money. Her point is that thinking about money may make you think a little bit more about your own goals, your individual desires, be a little more attuned to those kinds of utilitarian goals, a little less focused on those social features of life, that may actually contribute to, ultimately, at least, your overall well-being, moreso than money. It gives you this goal-focus. You sort of focus on what it means to get – and what I need to do to get more – and not about engaging with others.
Coiro: And to hang on to more.
Coiro: I found myself interested, when I was talking to a friend of mine who does have a great deal of money and was talking about this hour. He was immediately skeptical and said “Well, how much other research is there that confirms what he says?” And, I think that he was implying that there’s an element of judgment, an element of you arriving at conclusions that you’d already come up to, probably because you’re doing it in Berkeley, as I mentioned earlier. But, how does this map out to other research in similar areas that you’ve seen?
Piff: That’s a really important point. If it were one lab, in solitude, in isolation. An island of generative studies that all make this point, that’d be one thing. It’d be another thing if this lab were generating findings that are bolstered and supported by other labs that are working independently. That’s indeed what is the case. We mentioned KATHLEEN VAZ’s work on the effects of money. Certainly that yields a parallel interpretation to ours. But, of course, there’s fifty to sixty years of work, not done by us at all. We don’t have the resources to do this, but on charitable giving. That work is consistently finding that if you survey rich and poor Americans across this country and look at who it is that gives their money to charity, richer households are far less likely to give, proportionately speaking, of their incomes to charity than poorer households. And, that’s been a really curios trend that people keep documenting. That proportionately speaking, poorer people are far more generous than richer people.
Then there’s cross-cultural studies of developing nations and what groups do when you have them play economic games that measure their generosity. That’s work by Joe Henrich, at the University of British Columbia. What he found was that groups that need to work together, groups that have less individually, that need to cooperate to get ahead, they’re actually counter intuitively way more generous to one another than better-off individuals who don’t need to work together.
There’s a lot of cross-cultural work. There’s a lot of work being done in this country that yields very similar conclusions about what the effects of having are on people’s psychology and behavior.
Coiro: What effect has all the research on your attitude toward money and how you watch yourself, where issues of money and numbers are involved.
Piff: I drive a lot more carefully, now.
Coiro: In your Maserati.
Piff: Well, I actually have two Maserati’s now. I wear them around like roller skates. (laughs).
I think that work like this, and other kinds of work, that speaks to the different motivations that underlie people’s tendencies to think of themselves first, versus kind of attuned to the well-being of other people, what that does, if anything, if people are the least bit convinced by it, is make them a little bit more mindful about how it is that they’re acting. Not just my work, but the work that I’m familiar with similarly, makes me a little more mindful.
I drive a little more carefully. I know of a lot of work that documents what the effects of spending money on other people are, so I try to be more generous with my money than I would otherwise be. Again, I was a grad student for seven years. I’m a post-doc, now. So, it’s not at all the case that I’m wealthy by anyone’s standards. But, certainly, I’m able to do little things that make a difference in other people’s lives. And, knowing that and realizing that, has a real effect on my overall well-being, I find, on an everyday level.
There’s some cool research done by Liz Dunn, also at the University of British Columbia. I’m going to quickly point it out. What she did was look at whether or not, when you give people, say, twenty dollars, and have them spend it on themselves, versus spend it on someone else, and then measure how much bang they got for their buck, or in this case, their twenty bucks, so how much happier are they with those twenty dollars? How much did they get out of those twenty dollars? People who spent twenty bucks on someone else feel a lot better about themselves. They feel like they got a lot more value out of the twenty dollars. They feel better overall. They’re happier than people were who spent those twenty dollars on themselves. And, that just speaks to this basic idea of – if you can do a little bit to help someone else out, even if that comes at a personal cost, whether or not you realize this at the outset, there’s actually a yield to that that you’re going to experience, a positive gain that you’re going to have. It’s good to be mindful of those kinds of things. If you’re ever wondering why in the world would I do this in the first place?
Coiro: It’s funny. I hear us discussing, in 2013, concepts that in fact are biblical. The woman giving to the might box in church, or course she has nothing, and the king contributes nothing. It just seems to underline, to an extent, some stuff that we kind of already knew.
Piff: That’s right. We all have, I don’t want to call them folk intuitions, but intuitions about how different people behave, and what it is that money does to someone. There are a couple of things that I would say. First of all, it’s really important to – if we have an intuition – test it out, scientifically, because it’s not necessarily the case that our intuitions are always right. And, second of all, that we also have competing intuitions. Let me give you a question. And, I’m kind of reversing the table here. But let’s say that, Angie, I asked you to place a bet. You had to place a bet. The bet is: You’re watching two different people in different rooms being videotaped. You’re watching them on the screen. You’ve got, let’s say, a wealthy executive, dressed in a suit, he’s got his briefcase with him and there’s a homeless person that’s somehow been recruited into the lab, or someone who’s got a lot less money to their name. What they’re tasked with is rolling a die to win a different kind of cash prize. Say it’s a fifty dollar cash prize. And, the higher their score, the better off their chances are. They don’t know that you’re watching them, so they don’t know whether or not you can tell if they’re going to cheat. But, I’m giving them an opportunity to cheat. What I want you to bet on, is who it is that you think is going to be more likely to cheat in that game to win that $50 cash prize. The person who has a lot of money to their name or a lot less money to their name.
Coiro: I’m going to answer honestly. I would expect the richer guy to cheat first. My thought purpose behind that is, how did he get where he is? Probably by taking as many opportunities as he could.
Piff: That’s a great intuition. It’s not an intuition that’s necessarily shared by the majority of people that I’ve asked. I’d be curious to hear what your listeners thought to themselves, when posed with that dilemma. But, that’s indeed what we found. We ran that study. So, first of all, I bring that thought experiment just to get people to struggle with their competing intuitions about how greedy people behave. Or, excuse me, how wealthy people might behave more greedily –
Coiro: Oh, that was Freudian!
Piff: Yeah, I know! A terrible, terrible slip, but you caught me. And that’s wonderful. I won’t make the same mistake, twice. To really grapple with those intuitions, because I think we do have, in all of us, in each of us, these competing intuitions about: Yeah, rich people may be a little more greedy, but, isn’t there something about being poor that makes you more desiring of money, more likely to be willing to do certain kinds of things, to just get a little more advantage because, after all, you have so little to begin with.
And, fifty dollars means more to you. Why wouldn’t you just cheat a little bit to get that little bit of money that’s going to make a difference.
If you asked an economist, they’d think, based on rational economics, that it’s the disadvantaged that are going to be more likely to break certain kinds of rules to get ahead.
Nonetheless, when we ran that study, we had people play a game of dice and had a computer roll a die for them, virtually. We could keep track of their scores. But they didn’t know that. They just reported their total at the end, thinking that that’s the score that we would use to designate who wins and who doesn’t.
It was the richest people that were actually most likely to lie about their scores. That was really surprising to us, at the time. It does speak to this basic idea that the more you have, the less likely you are to attune to the what the rules might be and the more likely you are to think of yourself as maybe a little more entitled and a little more deserving of those better things in life.
Coiro: I don’t want to pick on you for a verbal slip-up, but I really think it’s worth probing how the word greedy came out of your mouth. Because this is something you study. And, I wonder, if you’ve come to, on a personal, not professional, a personal level, have you come to associate greed with richness?
Piff: This slip-up is interesting, but one thing I should say is that I’m not inventing the term greed. At this point, we’ve run close to a dozen studies that actually measure people’s attitudes about greed. We use that word. How good is greed? How moral is greed? How beneficial is greed? How right is it for you to behave in a greedy way? So, we measure people’s values about greed. We find, with thousands of people across this country, the more money you have, the more likely, get this, you are to moralize greed.
So, I misspoke, but I’m definitely pointing out findings that we have, which is that, with wealth seems to come an ideology of self-interest, and a moralizing, if you will, of the pursuit of self-interest, greed.
Coiro: The context of this conversation is much different now than it would have been, say, in the 1950s or 60s, because one thing that we see in the headlines, every day now, is the huge and growing disparity between owned wealth in our country. And I wonder if, not for some of the reactions that you get, but also some of the urgency to your work is different, now than it would have been, forty years ago. Because, we need to understand each other across a gulf that hasn’t existed since the 1920s.
Piff: That’s right. And, that gulf is ever-widening. In fact, that gulf may be worse today than it’s been, historically speaking, for a very, very long time. There’s a lot of work that talks about how inequality that is in societies, if certain groups of people have lots more than other groups of people, that’s not just bad for the people that don’t have. That’s bad for everybody.
For instance, the book The Spirit level, goes chapter by chapter by chapter, talking about how societies that have inequality really suffer as a whole. There’s more disease, there’s less trust, criminal rates go up, people’s subjective well-being goes down. There’s all sorts of negative things for society as a whole as a result of inequality. I think that’s one among a litany of reasons why people should be concerned about these ever growing disparities between the haves and the have-nots in society.
I’m not saying that our findings are the only thing that’s going on. But, we’re documenting, again, that as a person rises in the ranks, they become more likely to do things to continue to rise. And, what that suggests, is that it’s not necessarily the case that someone at the top is going to feel obligated to -or responsible for- the have-nots. This idea of noblesse oblige, seems to have fallen by the way-side, as that select few, or that select group of individuals seems to be really prioritizing their own well-being above other people’s, and in so doing, really aggregating what they have, relative to others.
It’s important to be mindful of why it is that inequality is more severe now than it’s ever been, and also what the benefits might be of reducing levels of inequality. I don’t think we’re ever going to get rid of inequality. I think, inequality or differences between people, are here to stay. They’re not necessarily a bad thing. But, what is, maybe, a little worse, than it could be, is the extent of the inequality. I think, to me, that’s a really important qualifier to make, is that it’s not a categorical thing. We don’t want to eliminate inequality. We can’t. I don’t think it’s something we can do in social collectives, but certainly we can point out the fact that inequality is very, very severe and maybe that’s not an ideal situation.
Coiro: I alluded earlier to the Romney campaign. It doesn’t really matter what you think of Mitt Romeny as a potential president, for you to look at the campaign and see the constant missteps and say “This was a person who really didn’t seem to understand who he was talking to when he was talking to the country as a whole. References to car elevators, your wife/helpmate appearing on TV in a tee-shirt that cost three figures, while talking about her ability to relate to other people. And I just wonder, because you have the context of all the studying you’ve done, what were you thinking as you watched that evolve?
Piff: It’s hard to extrapolate what we’re finding with thousands of people, again, to just explain why one person does the things that he or she does. But, Mitt Romney, interestingly really seemed to embody some of the things, some of the patterns that we were documenting. One of the real big things that we’ve been finding is that, with wealth come a kind of insularity, a kind of closed-offedness to others. You become a little more insular, a little more buffered from what it’s like to be like most of the other people around you.
What I think Mitt Romney’s comments at times suggested to me was not that he was in any way nefarious, or only self-focused, or only prioritizing of wealth, or even greedy, but just simply that he wasn’t necessarily attuned to what it’s like for the majority of Americans. I think maybe speaks to at least one of the effects that wealth has on people.
Now, put yourself in the position of a wealthy person. You’re not riding the bus. You’re not even necessarily car-pooling. You’re driving yourself to work. When you get to work, you maybe live in an office, or excuse me, work in an office, where you’re not always having conact with others. Maybe you’re telling people what to do, as opposed to being told what to do. You’re not necessarily working in groups, you’re more likely to be an executive. That’s part of what it means to have money. In your family time, you’re more likely to take vacations that really have you and your family spending time together, but not necessarily in big groups. In your home, you’re more likely to have bedrooms that are closed off to others. You’re less likely to share rooms. So, there are a lot of different ways in which wealth buys you space. It buys you space from others, it buys you physical space for yourself, it buys you space. It buys you distance.
And, with distance comes less attention. You’re less attentive to other people. You’re less aware of other people. One of the really interesting things that bolsters this, and I’m just going to quickly point this out, is that the chronicle Philanthropy ran a study just about a year ago, on giving. And they found, like I mentioned, richer households give proportionately less of their income to charity than poorer households. But, when they went into neighborhoods, where richer households were surrounded by, let’s say, more diverse people, when they went to more diverse neighborhoods, where there was a diversity of economic needs, those richer households were just as giving as the most generous givers in this country.
What that suggests is that it’s not necessarily the case that wealth makes you one way, but simply that wealth maybe insulates you a little more from other people and unless you expose yourself to the diversity of others around you and attune yourself a little bit to what it’s like to not have, wealth may have these effects, but it’s not difficult for these effects to go away or to make wealthy people more generous in the first place.
Coiro: That brings up the specter of the gated communities that we see, where people have only their like kind amongst them. It’s fascinating. And, the local people would already know this, but there is a gated community in the East Bay, of San Francisco, called Rossmore. And, I had always thought of Rossmore as yet another gated community of privileged people. And, it wasn’t until I actually met somebody who took me there on a tour. And it turns out to be, yes, a gated community, but it’s a gated community of many different financial levels. Some of these are small condos. Others are quite impressive, full, individual homes. That would almost give you the benefit of what you were just talking about. It’s like, yes. You can have your money and have all the benefits thereof, and you can still be exposed to people who live differently than you do.
Piff: That would be a really interesting community to study. Because it sounds like that community embodies some of these dynamics that I’m talking about. There are some other caveats, of course, when you’re face to face with how much less you have, relative to someone else. Say, if you’re in a gated community, where you have a lot less than someone who’s got that big house, there might be other things that unfold. But, I think you’re absolutely right.
I would love to study those kinds of communities, because they really speak to some of the important dynamics in what we’ve been studying.
Coiro: When that study makes you incredibly rich, I’ll get my cut, because I suggested it. I know that you’ve done a lot of studies that we haven’t really discussed. What’s one of your lesser known studies that wish someone would ask about, that you really enjoyed, or were really proud of?
Piff: I think this might be a good note to end on. It speaks to the point that we were just talking about. We ran a bunch of different studies that looked at a persons pro-sociality – all that means is that their levels of altruism, how generous they are, how helping they are – Yes, across the board, across these studies, we found that richer people tend to be less generous when we gave them ten dollars. In a lab study, they were less likely to share that with a stranger than poorer people. But, we ran this one study, where we were really interested in how likely a person was to give up minutes of their own time to help out another person. We had two different groups.
In one group, we had them watch a video of two people talking quietly in a courtroom. That’s our control group. In another group, we had them watch a brief video about childhood poverty. Forty-six seconds long. Nothing. Fast. Fleeting. But, it was just designed to elicit in people, increased feelings of compassion. Then, about fifteen minutes later, they were introduced to this person who shows up to the lab late, and is very, very distressed. They’re introduced to our person, to the participant, as their partner in the experiment. They’re seated in another room and we ask our participant, “Are you willing to give up some of your own minutes to help out this other person who would otherwise need to stay here for a lot of extra time. We measure how much time people are willing to volunteer to help out this other person.
In that group that just watched that video about two people talking quietly to one another in a courtroom, we found wealthier participants were less likely to give up their own minutes to help out this other person. They were just less compassionate. They were less likely to want to help than poor participants. But, in that compassion group, when people watched that forty-six second long video about childhood poverty, and then fifteen minutes later, were asked if they would be willing to volunteer, wealthier participants became just as incredibly volunteering of their time to help out this other person as their poorer participants.
The reason I bring that up is because it speaks to how incredibly sensitive to situational and environmental interventions, these patterns are. And that, if a simple reminder through forty-six seconds of video can do so much to make someone more charitable, more ethical, more moral, more compassionate, then it really speaks to how malleable these differences are and what it is, what the kinds of things are that might be able to make the patterns that we’re documenting change or go away in the long run.
Coiro: I know that you deal in research. To some extent it’s not really your business what people do with the results. Correct me if I’m wrong on that. As a researcher, there’s a certain purity to what you do.
Piff: I try to maintain that. Absolutley.
Coiro: But, as you garner all this knowledge, where do you see it being applied? And where do you want it being applied?
Piff: I think that’s a really difficult question to ask someone who like me is really just trying to be objective and scientific. Now, I know that’s really impossible, but that’s a standard we all try to strive for is this standard of objectivity. But,. I think that I come from an ideology not of political ideology, but from a basic perspective that extreme inequality in social collectives is bad. If that’s the case, I want to document what its effects are, some of which I’ve been finding are negative, in hopes of reducing inequality.
I’m kind of agnostic about what the specific policy applications are. To me, the specific policy applications are not limited to one political camp or another, but rather to an objective for society, which is to do what we can to reduce the differences between those that have and those that don’t, because that’s ultimately better off for the group and for the constituent members of the group. And that’s really as far as I can go.
Coiro: But is it actually controversial that severe inequality, in a given social constructed group, is a bad thing? Is that even argued?
Piff: I think a lot of people would say that, either that’s a necessary element of groups, or that there’s a self-correcting mechanism built in to social collectives that then strives to reduce that inequality, so no need to intervene, so maybe it’s not controversial. But, it might be a question of degree. How far along on that continuum it is that you need to be for it to be really problematic.
Then there are the real “m e r I t o c r a t s,” there are the real American dreamers, who think that it’s okay if five-hundred people, out three-hundred-million, have all the wealth, if they are the ones that have worked for it and deserve it. It really depends, but I think you’re right, that it’s not a categorical difference, but rather, one of degree.
Coiro: Paul Piff, this has been everything I hoped it would be. I thank you for coming in and thank you for your research. It’s just a revelation.
Piff: Thank you so much, Angie. It’s been a lot of fun, really illuminating, as well.