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For the upper echelons in society inequality often morphs into a feeling of entitlement, which can then translate into actions that further undermine social trust and common purpose. Over the past decade, groundbreaking research by behavioural psychologists illustrates how inequality shifts states of mind. In other words, there is a certain psychology to wealth and privilege.

While we all struggle in our lives with competing motivations — for example, whether to take time to help others or to focus on pursuing our own goals — professor of psychology Paul Piff and his team at the University of California have shown that the wealthier people are, the more likely they are to pursue self-interest to the detriment of others. Through dozens of experimental studies with thousands of human participants, researchers consistently found that as levels of wealth increase, feelings of entitlement also rise and levels of empathy and obligation toward others decline. Although there are always notable exceptions to this trend — we can all point to billionaire philanthropists — Piff argues that, statistically speaking, the tendency to “look out for number one” increases as a person rises to the top of the income and status hierarchy. In his experiments, this phenomenon translates into a greater propensity to engage in self-regarding and unethical behaviour — including cheating to increase one’s chances of winning a prize, endorsing unethical behaviours at work, or breaking the law while driving.

Consider two experiments. In the first, drivers of different types of cars are observed at a pedestrian crosswalk. In 90 percent of cases, drivers stop when they see a pedestrian nearing the intersection — except for those driving luxury cars. Piff’s study found that the latter are almost as likely to run the intersection as they are to wait for the person to cross the street (46 percent did not stop). In a second experiment, researchers created a rigged game of Monopoly — in which one player is given more money (resources) and more dice (opportunity) — and watch how his behaviour changes relative to the other player. In game after game, Piff and his team observe that the better-off player develops a strong sense of self — he becomes louder, ruder, and less sensitive toward the other player. He also feels more entitled than his opponent to take from a plate of pretzels that is placed next to the board.

Although greed affects all people, these studies indicate that it is not present equally across all social strata. The greater resources and independence available to those at the top of the economic hierarchy have a distinct effect on their behaviour. Those with greater wealth can deal more effectively with the “downstream costs” of acting unethically, while reduced dependency makes them less concerned with others’ evaluation. This combination can give rise to the positive values of greed and self-focused behaviour. Indeed, this sense of autonomy can manifest itself even in ordinary human interactions: experiments have shown that those in the high economic echelons are more disengaged in social settings — frequently doodling or checking their cellphones — and are worse at identifying and responding to the emotions of others.

Those at the top feel more deserving than those at the bottom; having more means you can rely less on others, leading to a reduced feeling that you owe anyone anything. This might help to explain why the wealthy tend to be more economically conservative and object to increased taxation or public spending.

Welsh, Jennifer. The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century. 2016. p. 289-90, 91. Italics in original.



Autumn leaves


While the Occupy Wall Street movement stole headlines for the latter months of 2011, it ultimately fizzled given a lack of agreement among its members on a concrete agenda and its unwillingness to engage — even minimally — with existing political institutions. Twenty-first-century Americans — and the same might be said for citizens of other liberal democracies — have by and large submitted to a system whose permanence is assumed; they focus their energies on the private pleasures of consumerism rather than on cultivating the public good or the political or economic interests they share with others. Fukuyama’s fear that the end of history would foster a consumerist culture, and expose an “emptiness at the core of liberalism,” seems to have been fulfilled.

Welsh, Jennifer. The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century. 2016. p. 276

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in Daily updates

Meaghan Beattie


Nothing about my PhD so far has been easy. As long-time readers may recall, my first comprehensive exam was only passed after two attempts and a lot of effort. The strike was painful, and has made me particularly question the quality of undergraduate education that U of T provides, in terms of class and tutorial sizes, the selection of professors, and support for and integration of teaching assistants into the learning process. I am now edging toward a formal research proposal for departmental approval and ethics review.

I originally wrote a longer document which talked more about methodology and many other things, but my supervisor encouraged me to write something more concise with the essential features of the proposed research project.

The plan now is to make sure the short document is a plausible nucleus for a successful PhD, including through a presentation to a brown bag lunch at the U of T Environmental Governance Lab on October 27th; to incorporate what has been left out in the older longer proposal; and to seek departmental and ethical approval before beginning first round remote interviews.

My supervisor has intelligently cautioned me about seeking too many critiques of these documents – a factor which has complicated and delayed my efforts so far, and which may be drawn from my experience as a civil servant. I have also been warned by Peter Russell that I am starting to write my thesis in the form of the proposal. So no comments please, unless they are strictly limited and focused on the process for making this proposal viable.

Fresh onion rings


About 16% of Canada’s electricity generation comes from the 19 nuclear reactors at Pickering, Darlington, Bruce, and Point Lepreau.

For years, politicians, regulators, environmentalists, and the public have been contemplating whether it makes sense to refurbish some reactors to extend their lives, particularly as climate change has become a greater concern.

Today, World Nuclear News reports that Bruce Power signed an agreement with SNC-Lavalin for up to C$400 million of work “for Bruce Power’s engineering needs including field services and an incremental program to refurbish six Candu units. The company will be responsible for the tooling to remove pressure and calandria tubes, the installation of new components and the deployment and maintenance of a number of reactor inspection tools.”

WNN also reports that Intrinsik Environmental Sciences have estimated that refurbishing the reactors at Darlington could avoid almost 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions between 2024 and 2055.

All the familiar issues with nuclear are at work here: what sort of power would be used in the alternative? Could energy storage and demand management do the same job? Is it technically and financially feasible to extend the operation of existing nuclear facilities?


In keeping with tradition, Massey College held a potluck dinner for Thanksgiving. Many thanks to all who contributed and came out.

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