The Money-Empathy Gap article in the latest New York Magazine http://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7/ by Lisa Miller is a fascinating piece on the relatively obvious point that wealthy individuals may be self-involved, aggressive, obnoxious, unethical, jerks. She provides "experimental " evidence by several researchers including Piff and Vohs to support this contention.
My problem with the article is that the underlying poltical impetus for its inclusion is so obviously transparent. Obama and his compassionate desire to care for those who cannot do so for themselves versus the out of touch, obscenely rich Romney who could not care less. The issue is far more complex.
Do rich people who drive fancy cars plow through stop signs and disdain four way intersections? What about obnoxious, angry poor people? And who knows what is going through the mind of any of our fellow human beings in the first place? Perhaps they are in crisis, suffering through some personal tragedy, just broke up with a lover, got fired from their job? Who knows? How can we know?
What about people who derive their income from competitive businesses that reward risk taking over those careers that don't. Are Wall Streeters less empathic than other wealthy individuals? Perhaps they are, in the whole. And just perhaps the qualities that drive success in Wall Street are the antithesis of compassionate empathic individuals. But in such a situation the money issues follow from the job description, not the other way around. And furthermore, can we judge each individual without knowing them? We should not.
We know that some physicians have the reputation as being more aggressive and less empathic by virtue of their specialty (orthopedics versus pediatrics, for example). And stereotypes do reveal some degree of truth, but generalizations will often be wrong when it comes to any individual human being.
I tend to hold the door for people who are coming into a building behind me. I find that just as many less affluent "appearing" don't say thank you as do those in expensive suits. Should I draw conclusions based on that observation? I don't think so. What about individuals who are suddenly affluent versus those who grew up that way?
Some extremely wealthy families imbued their offspring with a sense of obligation to be charitable, and to value other qualities besides money, others likely not. Some poor families raised their children to view every individual with respect, regardless of their wealth, until proven otherwise. I have personal knowledge that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is extremely charitable and apparently donates anonymously. He may have strong opinions on governing but on a personal level is extremely down to earth.
Human behavior deserves continuous study, observation and discussion. But we need to be aware of just how human our esteemed researchers are themselves. We all have biases. We all have personal and political agendas. We may cross the street to avoid someone who is begging or disheveled. It is not right, but we often do it anyway.
Studies can be tweaked to reveal just what we would like them to "prove". We just need to be aware that simple generalizations are self-fulfilling prophecies. And let us try to avoid what seems unavoidable–stereotyping groups of people whom we don't truly know as individuals.