With the widest wealth gap on record between America’s wealthiest families and, well, everyone else, economic inequality is making headlines. History teaches us that concentrated wealth isn’t good for nations, but emerging science is teaching us it’s not good for individuals, either. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen investigates the effects of money on mindset.
Money can’t buy you love, plus it turns out it can cost you your humanity. Research has only begun to delve into the impact money has on mindset, but what’s come up so far ain’t pretty. This week, we’ll investigate what falls by the wayside as the money rolls in, and—thankfully—how to hold on to the things money can’t buy.
Let’s start with what money costs us.
Cost #1: Courtesy. Ever heard this one? What’s the difference between a catfish and a BMW owner? One is a bottom-feeding scum sucker, and the other is a fish.
Unfortunately, BMW owners lived up to this reputation in a 2012 study carried out along a Northern California roadway. Over and over again, a researcher posing as a regular old pedestrian stood at a crosswalk, ready to cross the street as a car approached.
The good news is that eight out of ten cars stopped for the pedestrian and let him cross. But when the research team created a five-tiered system, with low-value “category 1” rusted-out beaters at the bottom and luxury “category 5” vehicles at the top, like BMWs, a pattern became clear. Of the category 1 vehicles, every single car stopped for the pedestrian. But of the category 5 vehicles, almost 50 percent blew through the crosswalk, leaving the hapless pedestrian in a cloud of exhaust.
Now, there hasn’t been a study yet about people who park their car across multiple spots, but I’m willing to bet you know the results already. (I’m getting dangerously close to the line of my zero-judgment promise here, I know.)
Cost #2: Empathy. A series of studies in the journal Psychological Science found that people of lower socioeconomic status were better able to read others’ expressions and emotions. In the study, participants were asked to self-identify their social class using a picture of a ladder with rungs labeled 1-10. The lowest rungs, they were told, represented “those who are the worst off, have the least education, least money, and least respected jobs or no job.” The highest rungs, by contrast, were “those who are the best off, have the most education, most money, and most respected jobs.”
Once the participants self-identified on the 1-10 ladder, they were asked to participate in a hypothetical job interview. The researcher interviewed two participants at a time, asking them standard questions like, “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” Afterwards, each participant rated to what extent they felt 20 different emotions such as anger, contempt, sadness, hope, surprise, and worry during the interview.
But then, there was a twist: they were also asked to rate how strongly they thought their interview counterpart felt each emotion.
The result? Lower-class participants were more accurate than higher-class participants at judging the emotions of their interview partner. The higher-class participants weren’t totally clueless, but it was clear they were less skilled at reading—and empathizing with—the emotions of their fellow human traveler.