Inequality, entitlement, and the breakdown of social cohesion


in Economics, Politics, Psychology

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.


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Milan October 17, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Among the policy responses to inequality that Welsh proposes considering: “a progressive tax on private wealth, a reverse estate tax to address one-time gains from property sales, and enforced transparency for all bank transactions”. (294)

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