It turns out F. Scott Fitzgerald was right about the very rich: Science confirms that they really are different from you and me.
That difference has been on uncomfortable display lately, with billionaires declaring themselves an oppressed but superheroic minority “being pummeled” and “picked on,” despite their incomes having grown exponentially over the past few decades, leaving the rest of us far behind.
Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California-Berkeley, is not surprised by these rich-guy outbursts, which have included offensive comparisons to Nazi persecution. His research shows that large gobs of money often make people drift away from the reality the rest of us know. So if some of those millionaires and billionaires seem to be completely out-of-touch rich guys lacking sympathy for their fellow man, that's because they are.
“Extreme wealth in our lab makes people less compassionate, they care less about the suffering of others, they’re less empathetic,” he told the Huffington Post in an interview. “They tend to think that they have their tons of money because they have a stronger genetic profile. You put that together, and you get jackasses.”
Being rich re-wires your brain and your environment in such a way that it’s easy to feel entitled to your money and harder to understand why other people don’t have it, Keltner said.
There are a few ways this happens, according to Keltner. For one, billionaires’ extreme wealth allow them to be “psychologically insulated” from the realities of being poor, Keltner said. They “couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to earn $35,000” and worry about things like paying bills or taking a long ride on public transportation to work or to pick up your kids.
That may explain why billionaire Wilbur Ross said earlier this month that rising from “the ghetto” to his position making billions dismantling companies is as easy as getting some education. (Ross didn't mention it, but it probably helped that he was lucky enough to grow up in suburban New Jersey, the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher).
The realities of being super-rich also mean that the wealthy tend to be socially isolated, keeping them a safe distance from how the other half lives, Keltner said. Take Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who went on a rant just the other day comparing tech blog ValleyWag to attack dogs for Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. What earned ValleyWag that distinction in Parker’s eyes? They had the audacity to write about how Parker may have caused “a total clusterfuck” for everyone else trying to live and walk on a Manhattan street, just so he could have Verizon FiOS installed in a $20 million apartment he no longer occupies.
“You go from country club to limousine to charity events in your tux,” Keltner said. “That circumstance allows for no window into the other parts of society.”
This combination of psychological and social isolation adds up in many cases to make rich people “believe more in the genetic basis of class categories,” Keltner said.
“If you walk around with that belief, and someone says, ‘Well, gosh, what do you think about the poor people?’ in your mind you’re thinking that’s kind of where they belong,” Keltner said. “There’s no opportunity for change, and they're a menace to society.”
But how do these out-of-touch sentiments make their way from inside a rich person’s brain to the op-ed pages of newspapers and the television airwaves? Is there nobody to stop these rich people from making themselves look ridiculous? Actually, no, according to Keltner: Many of the super-rich surround themselves with crews of sycophants. For evidence, look no further than this recent Buzzfeed profile of that Platonic ideal of an out-of-touch rich man, Donald Trump, whose “yes-men scramble to please."
“One of the things that we’re learning is that really wealthy powerful people make their underlings less challenging, so no one is standing up to that guy,” Keltner said. “You don’t get the challenges that keep you honest.”