Does science prove rich people are jerks?

Left wingers obsess over inequality partly because they hate that others are rich and they’re not. It’s more than just envy, but a sense of injustice: they feel morally superior, yet it’s the rotten rich who are rewarded.

unknownSocial science is rife with evidence showing that the rich and powerful are nasty. Is it that being nasty helps one get wealth and power – or that wealth and power corrupt one’s character?

Pertinent here was Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment. Student volunteers were assigned to role-play as prisoners or guards. The latter soon became so brutal toward the former that the experiment was stopped. Taken as evidence that power corrupts.

unknown-1A recent article by Matthew Sweet in The Economist’s “1843” magazine starts with a study analyzing behavior at traffic intersections. People in fancier cars behaved worse. And Sweet cites a different Berkeley study summed up as “science proves rich people are jerks.”

But – he says – not so fast.

A 2010 analysis by three European academics, using much larger data sets, found opposite results: privileged individuals were more generous and charitable, more likely to volunteer, more apt to help a struggling traveler, or look after a neighbor’s cat.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. They submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which had published the Berkeley work. “We thought,” said one of them, Boris Egloff, “naïve as we were, that this might be interesting for the scientific community.” The paper was rejected.

 images-1The researchers thereupon extended their analysis to data from America and other countries, becoming more confident they were on to something important. Rejected again. Eventually it was published in an online journal. But meantime Egloff was seared by the experience. “Personally I would have loved the results of the Berkeley group to be true,” he said; that “would provide a better fit to my personal and political beliefs and my worldview. However, as a scientist . . . .” He vowed never to touch this subject again.

But why do studies disagree so diametrically? Sweet suggests this sort of research may be inherently problematical. In 2015 the journal Science reported on a group of 270 academics attempting to replicate 100 psychological studies, succeeding in only 36 cases. unknown-2And this work too has been faulted by yet another group of academics led by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness influenced me greatly). Sweet says Gilbert has a vendetta against replicators, and when questioned on this by a journalist, he hung up.

Comes now Jonathan Haidt (another writer who influenced me greatly with The Righteous Mind), co-authoring a 2015 paper saying that over-representation of left-wing opinion in psychology faculties distorts the research results they report. This helps explain the Egloff paper’s rejection. As I’ve written, academia is becoming a fortress of enforced opinion defensively hostile toward non-conforming ideas.

“Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?” the Haidt paper said. “We think so.”

images-2In plain words, researchers often find the results they want. During my days as a PSC judge, I recall one hired-gun economist whose analysis attempted to show that something that had quite obviously occurred had not, statistically speaking, happened at all. It prompted me to quote, in my decision, Mark Twain on the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Meantime, the reliableness of scientific results more generally is becoming a widespread concern. Much gets published, it seems, that doesn’t hold up. A lot of biases, not just political, operate. For example, researchers like to publish positive results – We found it! : -) – but not negatives ones — We didn’t find it : -(

However, the lesson is not that all science is suspect. New insights or data are not going to overturn something like Darwinian evolution. Instead, it’s that scientists are human, and must not let beliefs compromise objectivity. Take care against telling yourself (and your political bedmates) what you want to hear.

images-3So – are rich people nicer or nastier? I think it’s hard to say – and to generalize. I’m comparatively rich. And very nice.

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4 Responses to “Does science prove rich people are jerks?”

  1. Joseph Sermarini Says:

    “Left wingers obsess over inequality partly because they hate that others are rich and they’re not. It’s more than just envy, but a sense of injustice: they feel morally superior, yet it’s the rotten rich who are rewarded.”

    I think that is exaggerated and mostly fiction.

    Just so you know from one left winger…

    I don’t obsess over inequality. I do think ignoring extreme inequality will be harmful to our democracy. The power of extremely wealthy people might be able to steer the government to favor their own needs at the expense of the greater good. They might, for example, be able to engineer a tax code that allows them to pay lower rates than average working people, creating huge budget deficits. At the same time, extreme poverty could lead to rebellion and the loss of democracy to dictatorship. Concern and recognition of potential problems is not obsession.

    I don’t hate that anyone is rich. I think that hard work, contributions to society, and success should be rewarded. I think most American “left wingers” do believe in capitalism and in the American dream.

    I do actually feel morally superior to some rich. I believe, to let children starve or die from diseases (for example) while having billions is immoral unless you are using or planning to use your wealth to make the world better for those less fortunate. Many do, and I greatly respect them. Some don’t, and I do think they are rotten.

    I do actually think that some wealth can be unjust. It is one thing for a successful businessman or athlete (for example) to pass on his wealth to his children or grandchildren, it is another for royalty to pass it on for 1000 years. In other words, I believe a society of permanent inherited castes is unjust, and that opinion doesn’t just apply to untouchables in India.

    Maybe you still see me exactly as you described? I think, however, most of us “left wingers” are more reasonable than you described.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thank you for expressing yourself reasonably. Unlike too many in public discourse nowadays.

  3. Janice Russell Says:

    Good article, as always, especially appreciate references to Jonathan Haidt and what I think is an important book, “Righteous Minds.” I wish more people would read it.

  4. Winton Bates Says:

    A good article on an important topic!

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