Inequality, entitlement, and the breakdown of social cohesion

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.


Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “Inequality, entitlement, and the breakdown of social cohesion”

  1. 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)


    When shown photos of human faces with different expressions, lower-income subjects are better than their more affluent counterparts at identifying the emotions correctly, according to a study by Yale professor Michael Kraus. (This makes some intuitive sense — if keeping your job depends on reading your customers’ emotions, you’ll probably get good at it.) When University of California psychology professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner recorded behavior at four-way stop signs, they found that the drivers of Toyotas and other inexpensive cars were four times less likely to cut off other drivers than the people steering BMWs and other high-end cars. In a related experiment, drivers of more modest cars were more likely to respect the right-of-way of pedestrians in a crosswalk, while half the drivers of high-end cars motored right past them. In other experiments, lower-income subjects were less likely than higher-income individuals to cheat, lie and help themselves to a jar of candy meant for kids.

    Strangely, even just thinking about money can make people act more selfishly. When University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Vohs primed study participants with images of money (showing them screensavers depicting floating cash, or asking them to unscramble lists of words that included terms like “cash” and “bill”), they were less likely to give money to a hypothetical charity. And when a research assistant dropped a box of pencils on the floor right beside them (pretending it was an accident), the money-primed subjects were less willing to help pick them up.

  3. A new paper from a trio of Boston College researchers shows that the states with the highest degree of income inequality are also the worst offenders for carbon emissions; as the share of wealth and income claimed by the richest 10% increases, the amount of carbon-intensive consumption they engage in grows, as does their political clout, allowing them to buy laws and policies that let them pollute more.

    “First, income concentration leads to concentrated political power and the ability to prevent regulations on carbon emissions,” said Schor, a professor of sociology. “Second, high income consumers are disproportionate carbon polluters.”

  4. WHICH of America’s social fault lines is most dangerous? Race remains as wide a rift as ever. Supporters of Bernie Sanders seethe at the richest 1%. Donald Trump won office exploiting the cultural chasm between an urban, cosmopolitan America and the rest. But if America’s woes are rooted in the inaccessibility of the American dream, the increasingly impenetrable barrier around those who manage to achieve it is the place to probe.

    That is where Richard Reeves, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, aims his fire in “Dream Hoarders”: at America’s richest fifth, its upper middle class. Having grabbed their piece of prosperity, the upper middle class are fighting like hell to keep it. They—which is to say you, in all probability—are the problem.

    Mr Reeves, who is British and recently emigrated to America, is perhaps better positioned than most to recognise class barriers for what they are. Whereas worry over inequality commonly focuses on eye-popping growth in incomes among the very rich, he notes that it is this top 20% as a whole which has pulled away. Between 1979 and 2013, average incomes for the bottom 80% of American households rose by 42% (adjusted for price changes). By contrast, those of the next richest 19% rose by 70%, and of the top 1% by 192%. This upper middle class stands apart from the rest of America in a number of ways: in terms of wealth and incomes, in educational attainment—perhaps the most salient of status markers—and broader health.

    The irony of America’s class system is its foundation in a culture of meritocracy. The upper middle class believe they deserve their good fortune. Its members are well-educated and hard-working, prudent savers and attentive parents. Yet meritocracy ultimately undermines equality of opportunity because the successful are best placed to pass on their high status. They hand on good genes, rear their children in homes rich in human capital, and provide the best of every educational opportunity.

  5. More pressing than the sociology of white racism, however, is its practical effects: a widening wealth gap between blacks and whites. Between 1983 and 2013, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent (from $6,800 to $1,700), and the median Latino household declined 50 percent (from $4,000 to $2,000). At the same time, wealth for the median white household increased 14 percent from $102,000 to $116,800. It’s an almost unbelievable contrast, and by 2020, black and Latino households are projected to lose even more wealth: 18 percent for the former, 12 percent for the latter. After those declines, the median white household will own 86 times more wealth than its black counterpart, and 68 times more wealth than its Latino one. This isn’t a wealth gap—it’s a wealth chasm.

  6. The upper middle class has been having it pretty good. It is about time those of us in the favored fifth recognized our privileged position. Some humility and generosity is required. But there is clearly some work to do in terms of raising awareness. Right now, there is something of a culture of entitlement among America’s upper middle class. Partly this is because of a natural tendency to compare ourselves to those even better off than us. This is the “we are the 99 percent” problem. But it is also because we feel entitled to our position since it results from our own merit: our education, brains, and hard work.

  7. people of higher socioeconomic status, compared with those lower down the ladder, are more prone to entitlement and narcissistic behavior. Wealthier subjects also tend to be more self-oriented and more willing to behave unethically in their own self-interest (to lie during negotiations, say, or to steal from an employer). In one study, Piff and his colleagues stationed a pedestrian at the edge of a busy crosswalk and watched to see which cars would let the person cross. Suffice it to say that Fords and Subarus were far more likely to stop than Mercedeses and BMWs.

  8. The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

    Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

  9. The disgraced cryptocurrency mogul Sam Bankman-Fried, who founded the FTX exchange, had planned to purchase the small Pacific island nation of Nauru in case the world came to an end, according to a new lawsuit.

    The lawsuit, filed on Thursday by FTX against its 31-year-old founder and three other former executives, and seeking $1bn, included a memo created by Bankman-Fried’s younger brother Gabriel and an FTX Foundation executive. The memo detailed plans to buy Nauru.

    The plan was to “purchase the sovereign nation of Nauru in order to construct a ‘bunker/shelter’ that would be used for ‘some event where 50-99.99% of people die [to] ensure that most EAs survive’” the memo said, referring to “effective altruism”, a philosophical and social movement championed by Bankman-Fried that tries to maximize the impact of charitable giving.

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