Daisy Grewal writes in the Scientific American in the article How Wealth Reduces Compassion:

But research suggests the opposite is true: as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline.

Is that opinion supported by the scientific consensus?


There was a recent episode of Freakonomics that covered this (more than one in fact).

Short short version: more research is needed, but it's definitely not as obvious and/or cut and dry as news media sensationalizing those studies like to make it seem.

Longer version:

  • Most of the research (such as Piff's) which showed the effect OP referred to is criticized on the basis of being "made up circumstances affecting (usually) college students doing experiments in the lab". In other words, there's no proof offered that the observed patterns propagate to real life, outside the lab.

    Additional problem with these results is that they don't account for Endogeneity_problem (for example, rich people speed more not (only) due to some innate personality differences, but because to them, the saved time is worth the risk of ticket which they can easily afford. They cheat more on taxes because they can save meaningful amount if they do).

  • The only research that was done using real life environment (in Scandinavia, where they delivered envelopes with cash to "wrong" addresses), actually showed the opposite result (poor people were more likely to keep the checks and more likely to keep the cash than checks). A valid criticism of the study was that it was influenced by a factor of "how much effort people were willing to put into going to post office to re-send the envelope to correct address", but that doesn't address the fact that cash was significantly less likely to be resent than checks.

    After accounting for the criticism, they ended up with:

    STOOP: Right. We, then, need a theoretical model, to map behavior to preferences. We model it as follows: a household returns an envelope if A (its altruism towards Joost, the intended recipient of the card) minus N (the neediness of the contents of the envelope) minus P (the financial pressure, the stress costs) is greater than zero. When altruism outweighs the neediness (N) and the stress (P), then the household returns the envelope. With the data that we have, we can actually estimate the A, the N [and] the P. ANDREONI: When we account for those, what we find is that the basic tendency to want to do the right thing is the same for the rich and the poor. But it’s the fact that rich and poor affects these other aspects of the decision and affects the outcome.
    STOOP: What we find is, not surprisingly, that the N differs between the rich and the poor. Meaning that the poor need the money [more] than the rich. Also, in line with this relatively new literature on financial stresses of the poor, we find that P, the financial pressure, is greater for the poor for the rich. Then we have A, altruism, and we find that these are the same between the rich and the poor. I consider this to be really a hardcore economic insight. As economists, we always say that incentives shape behavior, and this is another example of that. There are many other studies that look only at behavior. So far, it seems as if our study is the only study that has disentangled behavior from preferences.

The whole transcript is every very informative and I strongly recommend reading/listening to its entirety, not just my quoted summary.

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  • -1 Your answer seems to be mainly argumentative and poorly sourced. You dismiss peer-reviewed articles, but then your answer seems to rely solely on a radio program, which in turn seems to rely on non-peer-reviewed work. – tim Jun 30 '17 at 16:18
  • Your argument also doesn't seem consistent to me. You say that there was only one study using a real life environment (which you don't cite), but according to the article, Piff's research also included analysis of real life drivers. I also wouldn't dismiss lab settings like this. You argue that rich people are reckless drivers because they can afford it, but you have nothing to back that claim up. Lab studies are exactly what can be used to analyze these issues. – tim Jun 30 '17 at 16:19
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    @tim If your lab studies can't reproduce real-life results, you're doing something wrong. That's the case with Piff's studies - when put to test in a real-life setting to test it's predictive power, it failed. That's what the radio program is about - empirical proof that Piff's methodologies may need to be checked. – T. Sar Jul 3 '17 at 12:09
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    @DanielRHicks - [citation needed] (re: " tax/business laws don't "encourage" kleptocratic behavior there, like they do in the U") – user5341 Nov 28 '17 at 18:06
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    @DanielRHicks - you're gonna have to be a bit more explicit in how those laws fit your description. – user5341 Nov 28 '17 at 21:17

Andreoni, Nikiforakis and Stoop devised an improved version of the Scandinavian money-envelope experiment, which they ran in a Dutch city, and it didn't find the opposite effect, but failed to find a difference after adjusting for some confounders:

Our raw data indicate the rich behave more pro-socially. Controlling for pressures associated with poverty and the marginal utility of money, however, we find no difference in social preferences. The primary distinction between rich and poor is simply that the rich have more money

Also, whom the poor were (thinking they were) stealing from matters, in my opinion. In the Stoop experiment, the money was addressed to a middle-class Dutch neighborhood. So the poor (selected from social housing in the same city) were less likely to be "compassionate", money-wise about those likely richer than them. Would the result be the same if the money were addressed to a cancer-fighting charity? Or to a poverty-fighting charity? Or to some kid in Africa? It is actually known (granted from some laboratory studies) that

participants behave less prosocially (i.e., are less socially mindful) toward higher class targets relative to lower and/or middle class targets.

The Dutch study actually tried to control for this, unconvincingly in my opinion, by using the same middle-class address but rewriting the message so that it said that both the sender and receiver were cash-strapped (no details as to why were included in the message). And they found no difference in outcomes following this change in protocol.

The Dutch study found that the poor were less likely to return the money the closer they were to their pay check (which correlates negatively with how much money they had available). In fact this was their main finding:

While the difference in other arenas (such as tax evasion or charitable giving) may hinge on the fact that the rich have more money, in our study, the key fact seems to be that the poor have so little money. Our study therefore suggests an important notion: the financial pressures of poverty may make poor individuals sometimes behave less pro-socially.

So they don't exclude that variance in pro-social behavior may depend on the experiment/context. Saying that this type of money-envelope experiment invalidates other/prior experiments with different setups and measures seems thus unwarranted.

And another potential issue is that the Dutch study did not consider who the poor were stealing for. Was it to feed their hungry children? Because, again from laboratory studies, that makes a difference:

Replicating past work, social class positively predicted unethical behavior; however, this relationship was only observed when that behavior was self-beneficial. When unethical behavior was performed to benefit others, social class negatively predicted unethical behavior; lower class individuals were more likely than upper class individuals to engage in unethical behavior. Overall, social class predicts people’s tendency to behave selfishly, rather than predicting unethical behavior per se.

In other words, in laboratory experiments, there were more would-be Robin Hoods in the lower class.

And finally, it's not even the case that all laboratory experiments managed to reproduce the effect of social class (of the subject) on prosociality. There's another Dutch study (the one from which I quoted about the effect of the target class actually) that failed to replicate the effect of social class of the subject on prosociality, which may hint at the possibility of a cultural/regional effect as well. Also, another failure to replicate a direct link is noted in a UK study which proposes instead that

personal relative deprivation (PRD)—the belief that one is worse off than similar others—plays a key role in the link between social class and prosociality

They also advance some hypotheses how social class interacts with PRD, but the researchers themselves are rather reserved on those parts so I won't reproduce that here.

And probably the worst news, replication-wise comes from a PLoS one paper, which (using data mainly from Germany and the US) found mostly opposite effects

Across eight studies with large and representative international samples, we predominantly found positive effects of social class on prosociality: Higher class individuals were more likely to make a charitable donation and contribute a higher percentage of their family income to charity (32,090 >= N >= 3,957; Studies 1–3), were more likely to volunteer (37,136 >= N >= 3,964; Studies 4–6), were more helpful (N = 3,902; Study 7), and were more trusting and trustworthy in an economic game when interacting with a stranger (N = 1,421; Study 8) than lower social class individuals. Although the effects of social class varied somewhat across the kinds of prosocial behavior, countries, and measures of social class, under no condition did we find the negative effect that would have been expected on the basis of previous results reported in the psychological literature.

And one more interesting PNAS paper reports that

Analyzing results of a unique nationally representative survey that included a real-stakes giving opportunity (n = 1,498), we found that in the most unequal US states, higher-income respondents were less generous than lower-income respondents. In the least unequal states, however, higher-income individuals were more generous.

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More research is needed, as the song goes.

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  • that last conclusion seems rather counterintuitive as in actual history, there were more Robin Hoods (including Robin of Locksley himself, assuming he actually existed) who were middle class to rich, than vice versa. Which admittedly goes back to the underlying Captain Obvious fact that poor people are poor (rich men like Marx and Engels have the luxury of being revolutionaries, poor people need to feed their kids). – user5341 Nov 26 '17 at 19:22
  • @user5341: would-be vs actually having the means/time, I guess. – Fizz Nov 26 '17 at 19:24
  • that's one factor. I suspect there are others. – user5341 Nov 26 '17 at 19:29

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