Both because it's the season of giving and because it's, apparently, also the season for frantic but far-reaching tax overhauls, I've been thinking about greed and empathy lately. How much wealth should we accumulate and how much should we give away? How do we balance compassion for those less fortunate with justly rewarding innovation, risk, and talent?
If you're looking for definitive answers to these questions, look elsewhere (and good luck to you). But in the course of thinking about these things, I stumbled on one interesting truth. My answers to these questions are almost certainly affected by my bank balance.
Wealth, science has shown, may increase our ability to give to others but it also tends to decrease our desire to do so. Or, to put it more bluntly, being rich is an empathy killer.
How money kills compassion
This isn't the ranting of some (insert your least favorite political persuasion here). This is hard science verified by multiple studies.
Luxury car drivers are more likely to cut off other drivers and ignore pedestrians entering crosswalks. Poorer people tell researchers they think about others' suffering more often. When shown a video of kids with cancer, wealthier people physically react less. Wealthier and more powerful people are worse at reading emotions in other people's faces. Even thinking about your own wealth (however small or great it may be) has been shown to make you less willing to share candy with children (I am not making this up - here it all is laid out by Scientific American.)
And it's not simply that hard hearted people tend to become wealthy. Researchers believe that becoming wealthier actually makes you less empathetic. "Wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused," explains the same Scientific American article.
A season for self-reflection
Unless you own a yacht or two, the easiest knee jerk reaction to all this science is outrage. It's satisfying to shake your (metaphorical) fist in anger at those greedy rich people, mutter 'I suspected as much' and feel superior for your own commitment to caring for your fellow man.
But the fact is, if you take home more than $34,000 a year (or possibly a bit more depending on which expert you ask), you are among the top one percent globally. After all, around the world about three billion people make ends meet on less than $2 a day. Most Americans, by comparison, are rich, even if they really, really don't feel like it, surrounded as they are by way richer people and facing sky high cost of living.
So perhaps the better and more seasonally appropriate response to these studies isn't just outrage (though a little of that might not be entirely inappropriate); it's self reflection. What suffering has your relative comfort blinded you to? And have you struck the right balance between looking out for your own and remaining open to the worries, experiences, and joys of other people?
It's a hard question that people have wrestled with for millennia, but this science is a healthy if bracing reminder that if you don't continually revisit the issue, as you gain more wealth and success, you're likely to drift away from empathy.