In other words, many wealthy people can afford to give away much more money than they do. Why don’t they? When I spoke with David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy and the author of The Givers, a recently published book on big-money giving, he named several reasons. He said that many wealthy people are too busy to research charities, and can find their money tied up in their businesses. He also suggested it’s hard to part with money. “I think there is a sort of visceral desire for people not to see their bank account go down,” he told me.
Those reasons may well explain some of the gulf in giving, but one limitation is that some of them apply just as much to the middle class as to the 1 percent. Perhaps there is another way to think about this: Why would it be expected that society’s richest give money at all? After all, wealth doesn’t bestow unique insight, nor is it proof of empathy. Instead, there’s a body of psychological and behavioral-economics research suggesting that wealthy people are generally less caring, generous, and aware of how others think, feel, and live. Whether this is the case because money corrupts or because a certain type of person tends to want to accumulate it, this finding could at least partly explain why the well-off don’t give more than they do.
In a study published last year in the journal Psychological Science, for instance, Pia Dietze and Eric D. Knowles of New York University gave each of their subjects a pair of Google Glass and asked them to take a walk on a busy street. Using the technology to track people’s eye movements, the researchers discovered that their upper-income subjects spent significantly less time looking at other people in their field of vision. In another study, from 2010, researchers had their participants compare themselves with people either lower or higher on the income stratum. The men and women participating in the experiments picked up on emotional cues better when they looked to someone who earned more than they did, but not less. In other words, they read the situation better when they believed their status to be lower than others. And when they thought of themselves as higher-income, the ability dissipated.
The best-known study in this branch of research, titled “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” was published in 2012. It found that the higher a subject’s self-described social rank, the more candy they took from a jar labeled as being for children. In another experiment for that same paper, the nicer the car, the more likely a driver would cut off a pedestrian in a crosswalk or fail to yield to others at a four-way stop. As Jerry Useem described in The Atlantic earlier this year, there is a similar body of research about how power affects the brain, making people “more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”