Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Doors are open for rich to show they have a heart

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Researchers found across dozens of studies and thousands of participants that as a person's level of wealth increases, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down. Photo / Thinkstock
Researchers found across dozens of studies and thousands of participants that as a person's level of wealth increases, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down. Photo / Thinkstock

I'm blushing. One of my friends - movie reviewer Graeme Tuckett - informed me: "We bleeding heart panty waist liberals are now claiming you as one of our own."

Oh, help. And I fear what I am about to write now is not going to salvage any tattered remnants of my 1990s reputation for being flinty.

Did you know that "things have picked up for the super-rich and they're splashing out on flash cars"? Spivvy drivers have dropped a lazy $1.5 million each for three "hypercars" at the McLaren dealership since it opened this month.

Some other flush dude is buying a LaFerrari for $2.2 million and financial commentator Bernard Hickey says owners of expensive houses in Auckland are feeling chipper again.

Good on you wealth-creators, we need people like you and I have no desire to go on an eat-the-rich diatribe. But being loaded is not all it's cracked up to be.

This is not just me being Junior Freud. It's official.

Researchers in one of the world's top labs at UC Berkeley have been working on a series of studies which show how wealth changes people and they found it makes people meaner.

In one experiment, Berkeley social scientists used a rigged Monopoly game to test what happened when one player got double as much money as the other and got extra advantages. Very quickly the rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece, they started to become ruder toward the other person, less sensitive to the plight of the poor players and exhibited other dominant and dorky behaviour.

In another study tracking what kinds of cars broke the law by driving through a pedestrian crossing, they found as the expensiveness of the car increased, the driver's tendency to break the law increased as well.

Those were just two studies, but the researchers found across dozens of other studies and thousands of participants that as a person's level of wealth increases, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness and their ideology of self-interest increases.

They also looked at helping behaviour - known as pro-social behaviour - to understand who is more likely to offer help to another person, someone who is rich or someone who is poor.

In one study where both rich and poor people are brought into the lab and given some money with a chance to share it with a stranger, individuals on low salaries gave 44 per cent more of their money to the stranger than did individuals making $150,000 or $200,000 a year.

So, what do these findings mean? They are important at a time when we are discovering how increasing social inequality is damaging for everyone, and not just because those at the bottom have a miserable time, but because everyone is worse off.

I think this research is quite profound, and also useful, in an odd sort of way, in helping us get past our inherent brattishness.

No one ever thinks they are not a nice person; a phenomenon called self-serving bias, but studies like this give us a crack where the light gets in (Chur, Leonard Cohen.)

So, rich fulla, enjoy your throbbing car, but also be aware that not being a dickhead takes constant, painstaking, vigilant effort. Also: don't drive through zebra crossings.

And it is not all grim. Some other findings showed that small psychological interventions, small nudges, can restore levels of empathy. Reminding people about the benefits of co-operation or the advantages of community can cause wealthier individuals to be just as egalitarian as poor people.

An hour after watching a very brief video - 46 seconds long - about poverty, rich people became just as generous of their own time to help a stranger as someone who is poor.

The research suggests the difference in attitudes between rich and poor are not innate, but quite malleable, with a plasticity which is responsive to "nudges of compassion and bumps of empathy".

Anyway, I'm about to pack to go away for Christmas and I will pack the Monopoly game in case it rains. And if you want to speed up Monopoly when playing with young children, I can recommend the socialist method; at the start of the game you simply dole out the properties randomly to all the players. But then again, apparently I'm a dirty lefty.

Feliz Navidad and thank you for all your feedback during the year.

- NZ Herald

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