Does Having More Money Make You a Jerk?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You're a waiter with two men seated at separate tables in your section. One is wearing a dark suit with an expensive watch and tapping away on his cell phone, while the other shows up in a battered Toyota, wears board shorts and asks if he can get a basket with some extra bread. To whom should you pay more attention to get a better tip? The surprising answer, according to new research from Berkeley psychologist Paul Piff, is Table Two. He may order the specials and ignore the wine list, but the data says your poor guy will probably leave more money on the table at the end of the meal.

He also likely gives more to charity, stays more faithful in relationships and plays a pleasant game of Monopoly. Piff calls this phenomenon "the Asshole Effect," and it helps explain why some American politicians are so happy to divide the world among "makers" and "takers."

Piff, a 32-year-old researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, found that "as people grow wealthier, they are more likely to feel entitled, to become meaner and be more likely to exploit others, even to cheat," according to The Guardian's Anne Manne.

Piff's results have been dismissed as liberal nonsense and leftist propaganda for implicitly suggesting redistribution, but Piff stands by his data.

"Would I be less excited if we found that higher-status people were more generous?" he said in an interview with New York magazine. "I'd probably be less excited, but that's not what we found."

To uncover the Asshole Effect, Piff and his team conducted a series of increasingly specific experiments. At the most basic level, his researchers staked out intersections and tracked the behavior of drivers according to their model of car, ranked 1-5 from least to most expensive. Those behind the wheels of an expensive car were four times more likely to behave badly, cutting off others and blowing past pedestrians at a crosswalk.

The same held true while watching 274 cars pass through a four-way stop sign. The luxury models more often jumped their turn in the rotation, cutting off their lesser counterparts on the road.

In the laboratory Piff explored this idea with Monopoly, sharing games, association tests and many other ways of measuring behavior. He consistently found that people who came from wealthier backgrounds or who were primed to think of themselves as more wealthy in the situation showed less empathy, greater stinginess and far less likelihood to share resources with others.

Also See: Egomaniacs Make More Money

Richer test subjects agreed more often with statements like "I honestly feel I'm just more deserving than other people" and were even more willing to take candy from a basket reserved for the children's study next door.

The richer you get, or even just feel, the more likely you are to believe yourself superior to and more deserving of than everyone else. Empathy takes a hike and pretty soon people in need aren't victims of misfortune or a bad economy, they brought it upon themselves. After all, if you deserve your position in life than it follows that they must deserve theirs.

Drawing these broad conclusions may seem overwrought, but they are exactly where Piff argues that his results lead.

"The more severe inequality becomes, the more entitled people may feel and less likely to share resources they become," he said in an interview. "The wealthier [that] segments of society become then, [sic] the more vulnerable communities may be to selfish tendencies and the less charity the least among us can expect."

The rich, according to this study, are even three times more likely to cheat on their spouses.

In an era of unprecedented income inequality, Piff's warning has particular relevance. As the rich grow richer and more distant from the rest of us, while the gap even between the middle and lower classes continues to widen, it's worth exploring how that will impact our attitudes toward each other. According to the data out of Berkeley, the answer is not well. For fans of Mitt Romney's 47% video, this may come as news.

For anyone who has knowingly chuckled at Mr. Burns or sympathized with Bob Cratchit, probably not so much.

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.

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