Does wealth rob the brain of compassion?

Wealthy people are less likely than poor ones, in lab settings at least, to relate to the suffering of others. When people experience compassion, it turns out, our hearts actually slow down. In 2012, Piff’s then-colleagues Michael Kraus and Jennifer Stellar hooked volunteers up to ECG machines and showed them two short videos: a “neutral” video of a woman explaining how to construct a patio wall and a “compassion” video of children receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Relative to the wealthier participants, the poorer ones not only reported feeling greater compassion for the kids but also exhibited a significantly larger slowdown in heart rate from one video to the next.

If affluent people are less moved by the suffering of others, they should be less likely to help those in need, and this too seems to be true both in the lab and outside it. While wealthy families donate significantly more money to charity on average than poor families do, they tend to give away a smaller share of their income. “As wealth goes up, the stinginess seems to increase,” Piff said.

Raymond Fisman, a behavioral economist at Boston University, has found that the elite—regardless of political affiliation—tend to be “efficiency minded” as opposed to “equality minded.” He and several colleagues, including Daniel Markovits, the author of 2019’s The Meritocracy Trap, recruited a group of high-status liberals (Yale Law students) who identified as Democrats by a margin of more than 10 to one, and had them play a version of the so-called dictator game. Participants were given tokens redeemable for cash and were told they could give as many tokens as they liked (or none at all) to a fellow participant. An efficiency-minded person behaves more generously when helping someone else doesn’t cost her much—for example, when she’s told she needs to give up only 10 tokens for the other participant to get 20. But an equality-minded person is just as willing to share even if it costs her more. These categories can be used to predict, for example, whether a person will support redistributive tax policies.