It’s Not Your Imagination. Rich People ARE Jerks, Says Science


According to a fun new Vox analysis that is threatening to go viral, the rich really are jerks. It’s not an opinion. It’s Science.

Vox’s David Roberts and Javier Zarracina define jerks as folks who are “less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people.” Fair. Then they look at some current interviews with rich people in California, the same infamous interviews about which Nicole this week, as well as lots and lots of polling data.

Then they draw conclusions.

When I say rich people are jerks, do I mean that all rich people are jerks? No, of course not. That’s not how generalizations work. Plenty of rich people are nice enough. Bill Gates, say. “Rich people are jerks” is shorthand for a few related concepts.

First, per Piff, and per most of their public-facing statements, the proportion of jerkdom among the rich appears to be substantially higher than among the general population. Whether becoming very rich makes you a jerk or jerks are more likely to become very rich (I suspect there’s some of both), there’s a correlation.

Second, the Total Jerkdom (TJ) of a given demographic is a function not just of jerkdom’s prevalence (p) within the demographic, but also its significance (s) to the larger population. TJ = p*s. Even if the level of jerkdom among the rich is equal to or lower than the level in the general population, it will still have more malign effects, because, as the research above shows, the preferences of rich people have extremely high significance (s) value for US governance. In fact, they appear to be the only preferences that have any significance at all.

In short, rich people, qua demographic, have high jerkdom (p) and (s) values and thus uniquely high TJ. In other words, rich people are jerks.


What does this mean, in effect? Well, it means that, once again, studies have managed to demonstrate what many of us consider common knowledge. Slytherins are evil: duh. Lord Business is blinkered by self-interest and Real Housewives are real shallow: we know. The camel and the needle’s eye: yup. Wealthy people often let their money isolate them; they can become closed off and selfish, at least until cute orphans, in the case of Daddy Warbucks, or grim portents of the future, in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge, help them see the error of their ways.

More interestingly, though, in terms of relevance to our day-to-day lives, Vox points out that this means jerks have a disproportionate say in American governance and policy. A majority of members of Congress are millionaires, so meanies are writing our laws! And they’re writing them with other meanies in mind, the meanies whose wealth they need to stay in power. Fun.

It also means that SFGate was ahead of the curve when it published this piece in January claiming that more wealth in the Bay Area means that San Francisco is now a city of jerks.

Rich people are more likely to behave unethically even if they get very little benefit.

They’re more likely to take candy from a jar labeled as just for kids, cheat at games and cut off pedestrians in crosswalks. They’re also more likely to say they’d do the same thing when told about somebody who accepts bribes, lies to customers, cheats on an exam or pockets the money when a clerk gives too much change.

“I think what we’re assessing in these studies is a general lack of sensitivity to the needs of other people,” [psychologist and researcher Paul] Piff said. “The wealthier you are, the less attuned you are to other people around you.” …

Sebastiano Tevarotto, the 52-year-old CEO of a software company and a Noe Valley resident, said he wasn’t surprised by Piff’s findings. The native of Italy has lived in San Francisco for 15 years and said he has noticed the city move away from its hippie, free-love roots and toward being a crowded, aggressive, New York-like place.

“The entitlement, the wealth — it’s a different crowd,” he said. “It was more relaxed, and now it’s definitely more intense and competitive.”

“There is a certain amount of arrogance that comes with wealth and does translate to people feeling entitled at times and act not as nicely,” he continued before quipping, “Of course, I’m different.”

Hey, wait a minute. Where do you get off calling New York crowded and aggressive? I mean, yes, one time a woman did push me out of her way in a crosswalk while I was pregnant; and sure, I’ve seen people on subway platforms engage in vicious combat with umbrellas; and one time a stranger on a train walked over and slapped my sister-in-law in the face; and another time … wait, I’m sorry, what was the question again?



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