Wealth Accumulation Makes People Less Empathetic, More Selfish

By Trond Øverland

PROUT identifies the centralization of wealth as a main cause of the ongoing global economic recession. A recent study[1] indicates that the accumulation of wealth leads to inhuman behavior. Even the mere thought of getting richer makes people less empathic and more selfish.

Given that poverty offers fewer resources, greater exposure to insecurity, and a reduced sense of being in control, you would perhaps expect lower social class individuals to prioritize self-interest over the welfare of others. On the contrary, people stranded in poverty are apt to orient towards the welfare of others as a means of adapting to their more hostile environments and this orientation gives rise to greater pro-social behavior.

The study shows that lower class individuals are more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful compared with their upper class counterparts. The same research shows that lower class people act in a more pro-social fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.

In a recent article in the New York Magazine[2], Lisa Miller describes how psychological research indicates that wealth erodes empathy with others. Miller cites one researcher who says that:

“The rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

The correlation between money and insensitivity perpetuates itself, says Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Vohs was inspired to study the effects of money on social behavior when she landed a job that increased her salary five times. Suddenly she was no longer asking her friends for rides to the airport. She hired a personal shopper. “I was becoming more independent and less interdependent,” she says. This led her to the next thought: “We need to understand at a theoretical level what happens to people’s minds in the context of wealth,” Miller writes.

Vohs “primed” her subjects to think about money, which is to say she planted the idea of money in their minds without their knowledge before observing their social interactions compared with a control group. In one case, she asked participants to wait alone in a room at a big table, which happened to be strewn with gold, green, and burnt-orange Monopoly bills. After ten minutes, she’d get the subject, take him to a different room, and ask him to fill out piles of questionnaires seeking detailed psychological ­information. The point was to muddle the subject’s mind: He knew he was participating in an experiment but had no idea what he was being tested for.

Vohs got her result only after the subject believed the session was over. Heading for the door, he would bump into a person whose arms were piled precariously high with books and office supplies. That person (who worked for Vohs) would drop 27 tiny yellow pencils. Every subject in the study bent down to pick up the mess. But the money-primed subjects picked up 15 percent fewer pencils than the control group. In a conversation with Mills in her office earlier this year, Vohs stressed that money-priming did not make her subjects malicious—just disinterested. “It’s not a bad analogy to think of them as a little autistic,” she said. “I don’t think they mean any harm, but picking up pencils just isn’t their problem.”

Over and over, Miller writes, Vohs has found that money can make people antisocial. She primes subjects by seating them near a screen-saver showing currency floating like fish in a tank or asking them to descramble sentences, some of which include words like bill, check, or cash. Then she tests their sensitivity to other people. In an article in the journal Science (2006)[3], Vohs showed that money-primed subjects gave less time to a colleague in need of assistance and less money to a hypothetical charity.

When asked to pull up a chair so a stranger might join a meeting, money-primed subjects placed the chair at a greater distance from themselves than those in a control group. When asked how they’d prefer to spend their leisure time, money-primed people chose a personal cooking lesson over – a catered group dinner. Given a choice ­ between working collaboratively or alone, they opted to go solo. Vohs even found that money-primed people described feeling less emotional and physical pain: They can keep their hand under burning-hot water longer and feel less emotional distress when excluded from a ball-tossing game.

“Money,” says Vohs, “brings you into functionality mode. When that gets applied to other people, things get mucked up. You can get things done, but it does come at the expense of people’s feelings or caring about them as individuals.”

PROUT founder P.R. Sarkar described Capitalism as a psychic disease[4]:

“In capitalism the psychology of the acquisition of material wealth, be it land, money, metal or other property, strongly predominates. Such crude psychic urges and psychic pabula remain unchecked and unbridled in capitalism and turn into a hungry profit motive in the market system. As a result, traders, industrialists and business people suffer from the psychic disease of accumulating more and more wealth by any means, even to the point of depriving other human beings of their basic requirements.”

As a consequence, PROUT’s first fundamental principle states that no individual should be allowed to accumulate any physical wealth without the permission or clear approval by society.


1 American Psychological Association, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/99/5/771
2 “The Money-Empathy Gap”, Lisa Miller, New York Magazine, July 9, 2012. http://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7
3 “The Psychological Consequences of Money”, Kathleen D. Vohs, Nicole L. Mead, Miranda R. Goode. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/314/5802/1154.short
4 “The Transformation of Psychic Pabula into Psycho-spiritual Pabulum”, P.R. Sarkar. A Few Problems Solved Part 8, and PROUT in a Nutshell Part 12, Ananda Marga Publications.

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