Nastier By the Nickel

The more we earn, the meaner we get.

In New York MagazineLisa Miller wrote about the work of psychologist and researcher Paul Piff,  who found that “living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people” and make them “less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate.”

Mr. Burns of The Simpsons, by Matt Groening

“The efficiencies of the affluent brain may trigger the shutting down of what the researchers call ‘pro-social’ impulses,”  Miller wrote, “and lead people toward the kinds of behaviors that a hedge-fund manager I spoke to characterized as ‘ruthless.’ ”

This isn’t to say that all rich folks are jerks, of course. Nor that bullies must be wealthy.  In The New SocietyPeter Drucker observed that bullying behavior can sometimes arise from insufficient wealth and status.

That was the problem for many in the “industrial middle class” who had jobs as foremen or engineers or salesmen or plant managers. For that sort of worker, “the scope of his authority is so small and he is so dependent on management’s decisions and policies that he cannot be give a genuine managerial experience,” Drucker said. “His only chance to assert himself is often by ‘throwing his weight around’ and by compensating himself for his lack of genuine authority and status by bullying his subordinates.”

Still, Drucker understood the hazards of letting the rich take off the brakes. He even ascribed the spiritual downfall of Prussia in the 19th century to a cult of wealth and power that was allowed to spring up under Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck.  “By the time Bismarck had finished his work, the old Prussia with all its virtues and vices had been totally submerged into a vainglorious, noveau riche, bumptious, and bragging empire,” Drucker said in Adventures of a Bystander.  “The self-controlled, self-limited Junker who considered poverty a virtue and captain’s bars the height of achievement had been replaced by ostentatious great nobles.”

Worse, the avaricious and ruthless genie, once unleashed, is hard to rebottle. If head honchos start exhibiting this behavior, they might encourage a new generation to behave in the same way. “Subordinates, especially bright, young, and ambitious ones, tend to mold themselves after a forceful boss,” Drucker wrote in The Effective Executive. “There is, therefore, nothing more corrupting and more destructive in an organization than a forceful but basically corrupt executive.”

What in your experience is the correlation between a person’s wealth and empathy toward others?