fb-pixelWhy it matters that our politicians are rich - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Why it matters that our politicians are rich

Science is finding that money actually changes how you think and act—and not for the better

-Chip Wass for the Boston Globe

As the presidential primary race has unfolded over the last few months, curious Americans have angled for a look at the candidates’ wallets—and observed that they are bulging. There’s Newt Gingrich, with his $7 million fortune and an up to $1 million revolving line of credit at Tiffany. The relentlessly anti-elitist Rick Santorum disclosed last week that he earns roughly $1 million a year. Mitt Romney built an immense $200 million fortune through his “corporate raider” work at Bain Capital; even Ron Paul, who claimed in one debate that he was embarrassed to show his tax forms because he made so much less money than his rivals, is worth as much as $5.2 million.

This striking wealth among politicians goes beyond the GOP. One of these four men will face off against the now wealthy Barack Obama, whose book royalties alone ran to $2.5 million in 2008. Beyond the Oval Office, there’s Congress, whose members have a median net worth of $913,000, compared with $100,000 for the rest of us, according to a recent New York Times report. (Massachusetts’ own John Kerry is one leader of the pack, with a fortune that in 2009 was estimated at $167 million.)


Politicians would like us to believe that all this money doesn’t matter in a deeper sense—that what matters is ideas, skills, and leadership ability. Aside from a little extra business savvy, they’re regular people just like the rest of us: They just happen to have more money.

But is that true? In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. 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.


As voters consider which presidential candidate to support in November, one thing is for sure: Whoever wins is going to have money and power to spare. In a world where our politicians are inevitably better off than most of the people they govern, the new research sheds fresh light on the nature of our elected leaders—and offers insight into why they so often seem oblivious to our problems. And, given that some of us may one day build a successful business or win the lottery, it also begins to offer some hints of how we might face down the corrupting influence of wealth and power ourselves.


HERE IN THE home of the American dream, most people are convinced that gaining a lot of money or changing social status abruptly wouldn’t change who they are as people. Think about all the books, movies, and TV shows where a poor or middle-class person is suddenly elevated to a high position. Typically, his basic humility and decency shine through the trappings of power: “The Prince and the Pauper,” Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” John Goodman in “King Ralph.”


Psychology has now found ways to test that narrative, however, and basic decency is not coming out on top. There are two ways to gauge the difference between how wealthy and nonwealthy people think: You can make people temporarily feel rich (or prompt them to think about money) and see if that creates changes, or you can sample rich and nonrich people and see if they think differently to begin with. Both kinds of studies yield results that point in the same somewhat disturbing direction.

Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, started working on the issue of “feeling rich” in 2006 along with coauthors Nicole Mead and Miranda Goode. In their research, subjects were given subliminal suggestions to think about money—a clue in a descrambling puzzle, a dollar-bill screensaver on a computer screen, a sheaf of Monopoly bills on a table—before being asked to make a number of decisions: How soon do you ask for help on an impossible drawing task? Do you help the clumsy lab assistant who just dropped all her pencils? Do you donate to a made-up charity? Do you choose to work in a team or alone?

The mere hint of money, the researchers found, made people less likely to ask for help, less helpful in gathering the lab assistant’s pencils, significantly less generous to the made-up charity, and far less likely to look for teammates. “When people are reminded of money, they get better at pursing their personal goals,” Vohs said. “On the negative side, they become poor at interpersonal functioning. They’re not all that nice to be around. They’re not openly mean or disagreeable, but they can be insensitive.”


Insensitivity can cover a range of sins, from the minor (being unhelpful) to the more serious—say, treating others like they are less than human. Further studies by Vohs and her colleagues have shown that prompting people to think about money—a technique known as “priming”—makes them less likeable and friendly, and more likely to agree with statements that support an unjust, social-Darwinist status quo (for example, “Some groups of people are simply inferior to others”). In a particularly disturbing part of one study, the team primed people with money, then gauged their empathy by eliciting reactions to a theoretical scenario involving a belligerent homeless person. The researchers offered the subjects a chance to agree with statements that dehumanized others (“Some people deserve to be treated like animals”). The money-primed group was more likely to agree.

Vohs and her collaborators have proposed a number of explanations for this effect. Adam Waytz, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and a coauthor on the dehumanization study, describes the energy that fuels altruism as a “finite resource”—one that you tap only when you’re worried about your own needs in turn. “What money does...is, it obviates the need for others,” Waytz said. “When you have feelings of security, there’s no extra motivation to spend your resources for compassion on other people.”


The prompts to think of money in Vohs’s experiments are meant to approximate the reassuring effect of wealth, permitting her team to test those primed to think of money against those who haven’t been. What about people who are actually rich, and not just prompted to think about wealth in a lab? Other psychologists, like one team associated with the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, have conducted experiments that measure responses in people based on their actual affluence—and have found closely complementary results.

In 2009, Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Dacher Keltner, all then of Berkeley (Kraus is now at University of California, San Francisco), published research that divided up sample groups by family income as well as self-reported socioeconomic status. People of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to explain success or failure as a result of individual merit or fault; lower-class people, on the other hand, felt less control in their own lives and were more likely to blame events on circumstance. In other words, higher-status people were more likely to feel that they’d earned their high place in society, and that poorer people hadn’t.

More recently, similar research—involving not just surveys, but heart-rate measurements —has found that higher-status people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people of lower-class backgrounds.

“If your world is more unpredictable and threatening, and the police are more likely to arrest you, and you’re more likely to go to schools that don’t have the right kinds of resources, you’re going to be more attuned to the context around you,” Keltner explained. “And if [lower-status people are] more attuned to the environment and they’re tracking other people, it turns out they’re more compassionate, too, even at the physiological level.”

The result of these differences, say researchers who work on money and social class, is that people who are confident in their status have a completely different worldview from those who lack that confidence: more self-involved, self-justifying, and even, as the dehumanization study suggests, crueler. And the higher up the spectrum you get, the stronger the effect: “It’s on a continuum,” Kraus said. In other words, a subject whose family income is over $75,000 will show more compassion and generosity than a subject with a family income over $150,000, and less than a subject with an income of $30,000.

You might think that electing poor or low-status people to positions of power could help solve the problem, but it turns out not to be so easy: Power itself can trigger similar changes. Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap, psychologists at the business schools of Berkeley, Harvard, and Columbia, respectively, have shown that merely standing in a powerful position (arms crossed behind head, for example), releases an intense rush of testosterone while inhibiting the stress hormone cortisol. Among other things, this hormonal cocktail encourages people to follow their own self-interest and ignore external cues (others’ distress, say) that might slow them down.

Gaining a sense of power, then, even if it happens through random selection in a lab, alters you on a very basic level, making you “less attentive to others, more free to act, and more free to act in a way that doesn’t take account of other people,” said Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management who has been studying the effects of power for a decade.

So it’s all very well for us to curse our wealthy senators for their insensitivity. If we think we’re immune from these kinds of changes—that, if given their money and power, we would all be benevolent dictators—we are probably fooling ourselves.


WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS of realizing that our wealthy leaders may be more callous, self-absorbed, and self-justifying than the people they represent? For one thing, it suggests that the constant calls for candidates to release tax returns and disclose their assets are not so petty after all.

Beyond underscoring the importance of disclosure, however, the new research also offers some hope—not just for Rich Uncle Moneybags, but for you, if you happen to win a Senate election. As Galinsky explained, power doesn’t necessarily turn everyone cruel: It merely reveals their true colors. With power comes disinhibition, which can have the counterintuitive effect of turning a run-of-the-mill billionaire into a major philanthropist. “Power...frees you to act like your true self,” Galinsky said. “So let’s say the lascivious become even more flirtatious, but those people that are concerned with compassionate goals become even more compassionate and even more generous.”

And there’s more hope for rich or powerful people who want to avoid becoming insensitive jerks: Compassion, at least, can be taught. In a 2010 study, Kraus, Keltner, and several of their colleagues showed subjects one of two videos—a neutral clip from “All the King’s Men” or a short documentary about child poverty—before administering a written “compassion test” and an interpersonal test of compassion in which the subject had to divide a set of tasks of varying lengths between himself and a partner. Although the subjects with higher class status tended to assign the longer tasks to the partner, the researchers found that watching the child-poverty video canceled out the effect of social class.

Whether a given person will take on the challenge of cultivating his own compassion, of course, is another question. In trying to guess whether a wealthy political candidate will be hard-hearted or generous in practice, then, even complete financial disclosure is not enough; as always, it’s up to us to predict how a candidate’s character will guide him in office.

If you win the lottery and want to avoid becoming an insensitive lout yourself, however, the new findings offer some solutions. Sure, you could watch lots of compassion-inducing videos. But better yet, Keltner says, “Give at least half of the money away.” Not only does charity bring happiness, but getting rid of some of that windfall might be the simplest way to stay just as kind and decent as you are right now.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.