If you’ve read some of the entries in my “Annals of Heartlessness”, you’ll have noticed that a lot of the stories are about rich people being heartless, and often their heartlessness is directed at the poor. Is there something about money and wealth that makes people heartless? There’s a large literature that says “yes”. A poor person has an incentive to be kind to his neighbor, because the neighbor can perhaps be counted upon to babysit. A wealthy person doesn’t have to be kind to his neighbor because he can hire a babysit. Research by Dacher Keltner and Michael W. Kraus confirms this. Poor people invest more in interpersonal relations than the rich are, because they have to. Caring is then a self-interested preservation mechanism adopted by the poor in order to cope with a hostile environment:
Lower social class (or socioeconomic status) is associated with fewer resources, greater exposure to threat, and a reduced sense of personal control. Given these life circumstances, one might expect lower class individuals to engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others. The authors hypothesized, by contrast, that lower class individuals orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments and that this orientation gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. (source)
If you look at charitable donations - one way caring for each other - the size of the given amounts relative to income are larger as incomes drop.
From the point of view of rich people, it’s tempting to believe that wealth is deserved, that it is the result of hard work and dedication rather than luck or nepotism. The corollary is that poor people as well deserve their poverty. Hence why care about the poor? Even if they would receive help, they’re likely to return to poverty since they already went there once. This frame of mind translates into behavior:
A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker. (source)
As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are. (source)
[P]articipants reminded of money were less helpful than were participants not reminded of money, and they also preferred solitary activities and less physical intimacy. (source)
The caring that is more common among the poor extends to the environment as well:
The 2012 Greendex survey found that people in poorer countries feel, on average, much guiltier about their impacts on the natural world than people in rich countries. The places in which people feel least guilt are, in this order, Germany, the United States, Australia and Britain, while the people of India, China, Mexico and Brazil have the greatest concerns. Our guilt, the survey reported, exists in inverse proportion to the amount of damage our consumption does. (source)
Perhaps this is again a kind of self-interested caring: like the poor feel the need to care about other people because they may need the help of those other people at some point in the future, they care about the environment because they know that they are most vulnerable to environmental degradation.
That’s quite an impressive array of scientific findings. On the other hand, this research seems to go the other way. The poor are
harsh, moralistic citizens who are all too ready to judge one another. … [T]he poor, because they feel more vulnerable to wrongdoing, react to this generalized fear by preemptively attacking anyone who threatens the social order. Feeling like victims and lacking the protection that money offers, they use punitive judgments as their defense against society’s ruthlessness. … [Researchers ran] an experiment in which they manipulated subjects’ sense of financial status, making some feel relatively poor and others relatively well off. Then they asked them about their feelings of vulnerability and their ability to cope with challenges. Finally they had them judge offenses of two kinds. Some were harmful—unprovoked acts of aggression, for example. The others were offenses against purity—public swearing, for example. The scientists expected that income would only influence judgments of harmful offenses, the ones with clear victims, because only these offenses are personally threatening. And that’s what they found.
More on North Korea here.
We already knew that good looks give political candidates a sizable advantage. We’ve probably known this for ages, even before we had television. Now it seems that looks are important in democracies in other ways as well, and not just because they are intrinsically appealing. They tell us something about candidates’ competence to rule over us, or at least that’s what we think. Let me rephrase that, because “think” is too strong a word here. We “feel” it, and we do so immediately. Here’s a new study that claims voters judge politicians’ competence levels on the basis of a quick, almost instantaneous look at their faces:
[Princeton psychologist Alexander] Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates. … While we are never forced to vote based on one factor alone, the apparent predictive power of competence judgements reveals how deeply that quick impression may color our evaluation of more serious considerations. (source)
This reminds me of the equally well established finding that the voice of a politician also influences his or her share of the votes. I’m not here to undermine your belief in democracy, on the contrary, but a reality based belief is always better than a naive one.
Whether interviewees are given anonymity or not makes a big difference in survey results:
When people are assured of anonymity, it turns out, a lot more of them will acknowledge that they have had same-sex experiences and that they don’t entirely identify as heterosexual. But it also turns out that when people are assured of anonymity, they will show significantly higher rates of anti-gay sentiment. These results suggest that recent surveys have been understating, at least to some degree, two different things: the current level of same-sex activity and the current level of opposition to gay rights. (source)
Anonymity can result in data that are closer to the truth, so it’s tempting to require it, especially in the case of surveys that may suffer from social desirability bias (surveys asking about opinions that people are reluctant to divulge because these opinions are socially unacceptable – the Bradley effect is one example). However, anonymity can also create problems. For example, it may make it difficult to avoid questioning the same people more than once.
Go here for other posts in this series.
three weeks after Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus abruptly derailed school desegregation in September 1957. Confident that the Negroes would be kept out by the cordon of Arkansas National Guardsmen surrounding the school, crowds of angry whites—many having no connection to the school or to Little Rock—arrived every morning to demonstrate their disapproval of integration. They watched white students enter the school and kept a watchful eye to make sure black students, though backed by a federal court order allowing them in, didn’t try to sneak in. White reporters and cameramen faced relentless heckling, physical taunts and spittle. Black reporters faced worse. The story had drawn many of the most experienced journalists in the black press, reporters who had braved the back roads of the South and pioneered civil rights coverage long before it caught on with the mainstream white press. But as they tried to penetrate the scene around the high school, they met scorn and stonewalling as National Guardsmen quickly moved them off the premises and away from the story.
On the warm Monday morning of Sept. 23, the integration stalemate broke and the story changed. The National Guard, following a federal court edict, had withdrawn. The white crowds stayed, however, leaving the school’s grounds and perimeter beyond the control of authorities. Black students on their way to the school in a station wagon were heading into an unpredictable mob scene.
At the same time, in a separate car, intent on witnessing and covering the moment firsthand, were four seasoned black newsmen. Their leader was the tall, dark-skinned and serious L. Alex Wilson, the editor and general manager of the Tri-State Defender of Memphis, Tennessee—the newspaper that was the southern outpost of the Chicago Defender, one of the foremost black newspapers in the United States. (Continue reading).
Is aggregation across persons – making a decision that some people should bear losses so that others might gain more – ever permissible?
On the one hand, studies have shown that people faced with trolley problems would often sacrifice one person in order to save several others. Ticking bomb arguments – in which a single terrorist is tortured so that millions can be saved from an impending explosion – can also count on the agreement of large majorities.
On the other hand, an exchange like this one leaves most of us shocked:
Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created [in the USSR], the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
The thinking in both cases is plainly utilitarian – that it’s acceptable to trade off the lives of some so that others can benefit. And yet our reactions to the two cases are polar opposites.
What can account for this difference? In the former examples, the good is more obvious, namely the saving of lives. The good that could – perhaps – have come from communist tyranny is rather more vague, more uncertain and less immediate. Trolley problems and the ticking time bomb scenario also present a balance between the good and the harm that supposedly needs to be done in order to achieve the good that is more clearly in favor of the good: it’s typically just one person that has to be sacrificed or tortured, not millions as in the case of communism.
So there’s a clear, immediate and widespread good that is supposed to come from the trolley sacrifice and the ticking time bomb torture (I say “supposed” because the hypotheticals don’t tend to occur in reality), and the harm that needs to be done to achieve the good is limited. This suggests that we favor threshold deontology: things which we normally aren’t supposed to do are allowed when the consequences of doing it are overwhelmingly good (or the consequences of not doing it are overwhelmingly bad). This theory is different from plain Hobsbawmian utilitarianism in the sense that it’s not a simple aggregation of good and bad across persons resulting in a choice for the best balance, no matter how small the margin of the good relative to the bad. A crude utilitarianism such as this does not agree with most people’s moral intuitions. Neither does dogmatic deontologism which imposes rules that have to be respected no matter the consequences.
However, threshold deontology creates its own problems, not the least of which are the determination of the exact threshold level and the Sorites paradox (suppose you have a heap of sand from which you individually remove grains: when is it no longer a heap, assuming that removing a single grain never turns a heap into a non-heap?).
The moral problems described here are relevant to the topic of this blog because the harm or the good that needs to be balanced is often a harm done to or a good done for human rights.
Other posts in this series are here.