Social scientist Paul Piff claims that rich people [read:Americans] are more selfish, less empathic, less generous, and less compassionate than middle-class and poor Americans. The Inheritance Project asks: Is this accurate?

On October 16 I heard, by chance, an interview on CBC Radio’s “The Current” with Paul Piff, who has been doing post-doctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley. Anna Maria Tremonti, host of “The Current,” began by playing a radio clip from NPR (National Public Radio in the US) shortly after the 2008 financial meltdown. Two NPR reporters engaged in a conversation with four people they had just met in a bar near Wall Street. Of the four, three were Wall Street traders, still employed, and the fourth was a young woman who had lost her job as a result of the meltdown. The reporters wondered whether the traders, who had been generously bailed out by the Bush government, were grateful for not losing their jobs. Au contraire, the traders gloated, claiming they deserved their rich bailout.
NPR: “Say you’re an institutional investor. You work for a credit rating agency. What do you do?”
Trader # 1: “I can guarantee you would have gone under. Your stock valuation would have collapsed.”
NPR: “All three of you directly benefitted from the bailout.”
Trader # 1: “You’re crazy! [To the woman:] So what do you do? No bailout?”
Woman: “I don’t know. I would like to [have been] bail[ed] out, and I would like to walk into a bar in lower Manhattan and have one of you thank me. You guys still have your jobs!”
Trader #2: “I’m smarter than the average person, [so] I took advantage of a situation. Ninety-five percent of the population doesn’t [sic] have common sense.”
End of NPR clip

Tremonti to Paul Piff, her guest: “Let’s begin with what you’ve learned through a few of your studies. Let’s start with drivers.”
Piff describes a study he conducted in what he repeatedly calls his “lab” of certain behaviors of drivers of expensive cars (BMWs, Mercedes, et cetera) with drivers of less expensive and older cars. In California, home ground for Piff’s studies, the law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians at intersections; failure to stop can result in a fine. Piff: “We found this amazing linear trend: as the expensiveness of a vehicle increased, the driver’s tendency to break the law increased as well. Fifty percent of drivers in the most expensive category broke the law. None of the [drivers] in the least expensive vehicles broke the law.”
AMT: “And what did that tell you?”
Piff: “It’s not that they wanted to break the law. It’s [related with] a decreased sensitivity to other people in their social environment. Wealth buffers you from the needs of other people. By affording you more freedom and more control over your life, wealth buys you independence from other people. That independence, we find, [causes] some really pernicious effects. Because you’re independent of others, you become less sensitive to relationships, you become less attuned to people around you, and you prioritize your own well-being.”
“As wealth accumulates, empathy, compassion, and generosity decline. The wealthier you are and the more status in society you have, the more likely you are to see yourself deserving of good things in life. You see yourself more entitled to better outcomes, and you also feel like you’re directly responsible for all of the privileges you experience, even if your wealth is inherited, [emphasis added] as opposed to earned. So the mind …, as wealth increases, makes sense of increasing wealth by attributing by attributing its origin to oneself and one’s efforts, individual talents, and achievements as opposed to looking at all the different situational things, like the [Wall Street] bailout, or the fact that one inherited wealth as opposed to directly earning it.”
There is much more in this interesting study
which, without saying so, seems to apply, not to rich people in general, but to rich Americans, particularly those in California. I find myself wondering how similar or different the results would have been had the study had been inclusive of other nationalities.
I have reservations about a number of Piff’s conclusions. My number one beef with his statements is that he consistently overgeneralizes. He seems to imply that all rich people [in this interview he does not define what income level makes one “rich”] think about themselves and others in the ways he describes. His conclusions come from the methodology of the social sciences, which are quantitative, and conducted in his “lab,” although it is not clear what, exactly, this lab is, or does. He does not take into account the variety and complexity of individual responses to being “rich.”
As an inheritor, I disagree with Piff’s inclusion of inheritors in his generalizations, which would include “feel[ing] like you’re directly responsible for all of the privileges you experience, even if your wealth is inherited.”
At the same time, some of what Piff says is worth considering. Comments from readers would be appreciated.