Cold-Hearted Cash

Psychologists study the relationship between income level and empathy for others.

wad of $100 bills

There’s no doubt money can make life easier in many ways. The more riches we accumulate, however, the harder it may be for us to relate to the tribulations of others.

Psychologists Paul Piff, PhD, and Dacher Keltner, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a series of experiments on the relationship between money and behavior. In one set of studies, they monitored drivers at a San Francisco Bay Area intersection and observed that luxury-car drivers, both male and female, were three to four times more likely to cut off other motorists or speed past pedestrians.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggests that people reporting higher levels of income are more apt to act with blatant self-interest. In another study, affluent participants took candy intended for children and cheated on a computerized dice game at about twice the rate of those with less wealth.

These self-interested behaviors are fostered in part by the independence money provides, hypothesizes Piff. Because affluent individuals are less likely to rely on others for support, they may feel they don’t have to consider the feelings and needs of anyone else.

Still, Piff emphasizes that anyone can cultivate more empathy: “Simply reminding [people] of the needs of others, through increased exposure and through our media outlets, would go a long way in restoring ethical conduct.”

No matter how much money you make, actively nurture a balance of economic and emotional capital, he advises — both for your own good and the good of others. “Practice compassion,” he suggests. “Seek out opportunities to be of help in your community. It will make you happier and healthier, and benefit the world around you.”


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