Are Rich People Worse Humans?


Do you ever get the sense that rich people are more likely to be rude or self-centered? Well, we decided it was time to find out whether or not rich people are actually more likely to be jerks.

Have you ever been cut off by someone driving a Mercedes? Multiple studies have found that the more expensive your car is, the more likely you are to not only cut in front of other vehicles, but also drive through crosswalks when a pedestrian is waiting to cross. In one study, those with the most expensive cars cut pedestrians off 42% of the time.

But that's not all. The amount of money you have also affects how much you look at people. Using Google Glass — the company's version of smart glasses — researchers tracked people's eye movements as they walked around the block. Interestingly, they found that wealthier people spent significantly less time making eye contact with others, than those who were considered not as wealthy. In short, this study found that the wealthier you are the more likely you are to ignore other people in social situations. Which may support the idea that rich people generally have less empathy. This was shown in US nationwide survey data that showed that the wealthy contribute less to charity. For example, a household that makes under $25,000 in the US donated 4.2% of their earnings, but those making $100,000 or more only contributed 2.7%.

So the question stands: are rude people more likely to become rich, or does being rich make you a jerk? Counter to what we might believe, people who are most likely to gain power in a group are actually more emotionally intelligent. These are the types that regularly practice generosity, and are not considered bullies. Studies even find that college students at the top of the social hierarchy tend to be the most pro-social and compassionate instead of selfish. It all goes back to our hunter-gatherer roots, where individuals who share food and resources rise in ranks.

But this leads to the “Power Paradox” — to gain power you need empathy, but once you feel powerful, you become more self-focused. You can even see this in fMRI brain scans. Areas like the prefrontal cortex that activate when understanding mental states or considering the thoughts of others, show less activity in those with a higher social class. Poor people also have a greater ability to assess the emotional states of others, have more interpersonal interactions, greater eye contact, head nodding and laughing, compared to richer people who are more likely to self-groom, fidget or doodle. One possible explanation for this is that people with less materials, resources and privilege rely more on others to meet their needs, and this creates a pressure to be more emotionally intelligent.

So of course, not all rich people are jerks. But in general, as your wealth increases your empathy decreases, making rich people statistically more likely to be jerks.

Mitch Moffit