There’s a scene in A Christmas Carol where a couple charity workers visit Scrooge’s office looking for donations.
Of course, Scrooge gotta Scrooge, so he kicks them to the curb.
Ebenezer with all the money in the world, can’t spare a dime.
That should feel counterintuitive to us, but as the audience, we nod our heads and think, “yup, that makes sense.” Dickens didn’t invent the trope of the cruel, greedy rich guy, but he sure popularized it, and there have been countless examples since: Montgomery Burns, Mr. Potter, Gordon Gekko, Smaug the Dragon, the Lannisters.
The idea that one’s wealth is inversely proportional to their empathy is a staple of fiction, but is there a basis in reality for it?
Does having more money make you meaner?
And if so, what can be done about it?
If I asked you “why don’t you give away more money to worthy causes?”, what would you say?
I’d guess we’d all have a response along the lines of “I don’t have enough money.” That sounds reasonable on its face.
But what if I told you that research suggests having more money makes you LESS generous?
A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found households earning 50 to 70 thousand dollars gave 7.6% of their discretionary spending to charity.
Those earning $100,000 gave 4.2%.
And those who made over $200,000 and lived in a zipcode where 40% of their neighbors earned the same gave only 2.8% to charity.
And a University of Notre Dame survey found that Americans below the poverty line were twice as likely to give up to 1% of their entire income to charity compared to those above the poverty line.
Researchers at UC Berkeley conducted an experiment where subjects were asked to rank themselves on a socio-economic scale from low to high.
Then they were given some cash and asked how much of it they’d consider giving to a stranger.
Again, people who identified themselves as lower-class, gave away 44 percent more on average than their higher ranked counterparts.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the famous “giving pledge” campaign initiated by Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and other billionaires.
In an inspiring move, they are trying to convince other super wealthy families to give away half of their fortune over their lifetime.
But, sadly, out of the hundreds of thousands of ultra-high net worth individuals in the world, only 187 have signed the pledge in the 8 years since the campaign started.
There’s no denying there’s a “self-preservation” streak when it comes to amassing wealth.
Money doesn’t just make us more possessive, it can also lead to obnoxious, arrogant social behavior.
Take one study that watched 100 random partners play a rigged game of Monopoly.
One of the two players started with double the starting cash, collected twice as much when they passed “Go”, and rolled more dice.
These advantaged players demonstrated more visible displays of victoriousness like dominant physical gesturing and loudly moving their pieces around the board.
They even ate more pretzels that were specifically located nearer to the disadvantaged player.
When asked afterwards what factors led to their success, many of them pointed to some sort of inherent skill rather than the obvious fact that the game was heavily tilted in their favor from the start.
It’s like their brains had to find some sort of self-affirming justification for unearned privilege.
Even pretend-wealth can turn nice Aunt Sharon into a cutthroat real estate baron!
What’s going on here?
What is it about wealth that can turn even the best of us into an un-caring Scrooge?
One of the major factors is the connection between wealth and power.
The greater your wealth, the more advantages you have in life and the more power you have over situations, circumstances, and people.
That boost in our sense of power holds a key to this phenomenon.
In a study at McMaster University, subjects were split into two groups - one primed to feel powerful by recounting a situation where they were in charge - and one was not.
Those feeling more powerful were far less likely to exhibit what neuroscientists call “mirroring,” our subconscious copying of others’ behaviors and moods.
Laughing when others laugh.
Feeling tension in the room when someone says something inappropriate.
Getting choked up watching someone else cry.
Mirroring is a vital skill that allows us to adapt appropriately to the people around us, and fit into social situations.
And it is an essential building block to allowing us to feel empathy.
If you’re wealthy, or hope to be one day by watching Two Cents videos, this might be a bit alarming.
But fear not!
Now that you are aware of some of the dangers that come along with wealth, there are steps you can take to build empathy and remain generous now matter how much money you have.
For starters, don’t isolate yourself or surround yourself with only your wealthy friends.
Wealthy individuals usually live physically further apart from others, and when they socialize, it’s with people at their same income level.
But studies show that wealthy people that live in economically diverse neighborhoods give away twice as much to charity than those that don’t.
So where you live makes a big difference!
And the same guys that did the monopoly study also found that experiencing nature can make us more generous.
The feeling of awe when you look up at the stars or over a vast, expansive landscape makes you feel less important and therefore more likely to help someone else out.
So take a hike, Ebenezer!
Wealth isn’t evil.
It’s a tool that can impact the world in ways beneficial... and terrible.
As you journey towards a more prosperous future, don’t forget to protect yourself from the emotionally numbing effects of wealth.
For example, you can set a specific percentage of your income to give away - no matter how much you make.
And try to actively seek out situations that will connect you people that aren’t like you.
It’ll help make sure you own your money… and it doesn’t own you.
And that’s our two cents!