December 17, 2017; Atlantic
Helaine Olen writes about money and society. In recent days, for the Atlantic, Olen has probed DAFs, the suffrage movement, inheritance and philanthropy, Giving Tuesday, wealthy young progressives, and the Giving Pledge. In this article, she asks the age-old question, “Why Don’t Rich Americans Give More to Charity?”
Amid today’s grand philanthropic gestures, with benefactors’ names often etched in granite, Olen cites research that shows the less-well-off give a higher percentage of their income than the wealthy. She cites explanations offered by others for this dissymmetry, and then she offers her opinion.
Those reasons may well explain some of the gulf in giving, but one limitation is that some of them apply just as much to the middle class as to the 1 percent. Perhaps there is another way to think about this: Why would it be expected that society’s richest give money at all? After all, wealth doesn’t bestow unique insight, nor is it proof of empathy. Instead, there’s a body of psychological and behavioral-economics research suggesting that wealthy people are generally less caring, generous, and aware of how others think, feel, and live. Whether this is the case because money corrupts or because a certain type of person tends to want to accumulate it, this finding could at least partly explain why the well-off don’t give more than they do.
Olen compares America to other developed countries and concludes, “If many Americans want the richest among them to give more, maybe taxation, not philanthropy, is the more effective approach.” But, she also has surfaced behavioral research that explains why rich folk, if they do give, often send their gifts to institutions that are already very well off.
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In a study published last year in the journal Psychological Science, for instance, Pia Dietze and Eric D. Knowles of New York University gave each of their subjects a pair of Google Glass and asked them to take a walk on a busy street. Using the technology to track people’s eye movements, the researchers discovered that their upper-income subjects spent significantly less time looking at other people in their field of vision. In another study, from 2010, researchers had their participants compare themselves with people either lower or higher on the income stratum. The men and women participating in the experiments picked up on emotional cues better when they looked to someone who earned more than they did, but not less. In other words, they read the situation better when they believed their status to be lower than others. And when they thought of themselves as higher-income, the ability dissipated.
But it gets worse:
The best-known study in this branch of research, titled “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” was published in 2012. It found that the higher a subject’s self-described social rank, the more candy they took from a jar labeled as being for children. In another experiment for that same paper, the nicer the car, the more likely a driver would cut off a pedestrian in a crosswalk or fail to yield to others at a four-way stop. As Jerry Useem described in The Atlantic earlier this year, there is a similar body of research about how power affects the brain, making people “more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”
Olen suggests that giving for many is a kind of social insurance meant to secure one’s own survival by contributing to a community that would do the same for you were you to fall into trouble. But it may be that the more you are buffered by wealth, the less you see the need. It also, as she suggests, sets up a dynamic where the vanity projects of the ultra-rich warp our approaches to social problems the whole populace should be considering. In any case, these findings (and there are more in the article) tend to argue against depending on philanthropy rather than taxation for attention to economic and social inequities and considering where the lion’s share of benefits from the new GOP tax overhaul will land, this is a question for our age.—Jim Schaffer and Ruth McCambridge