I tried not to look surprised. My friend worked as a caregiver and was raising two kids on less than $19,000 a year.
She read my face. “Look at her,” she said, cocking her head at our waitress, who was visibly pregnant and speed-walking from table to table with laden platters in the busy restaurant. “She’s been on her feet for probably six hours already and has three more to go, she’s got a baby on the way, you know she’s exhausted, and somehow she still took great care of us like she’s supposed to. She needs it more than I do.”
I felt my face turn red. I could afford an extra $5. Why hadn’t I thought of that? “You are something else,” I said finally.
“Nah,” she demurred. “But I used to be her, you know? So I know how it is. Besides, karma’s a b—- and you can never be too careful.” She winked and reached for her keys. “Ready to go?”
There’s little question that people find it easier to give when they see something of themselves in the recipient. It’s what motivates families of cancer survivors to participate so eagerly in fundraising walks and why my friend at Denny’s gave so readily to our waitress. It’s also why hedge fund manager John Paulson gave $400 million last year to Harvard University, his alma mater, and not to, say, Habitat for Humanity.
Proximity plays a role, too. We give more easily to the people and causes we see, often regardless of the magnitude of the need. Americans gave nearly $1 billion more to the approximately 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks than they gave to victims of the South Asian tsunami three years later, even though the latter tragedy killed more than a quarter of a million people. A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that affluent people in homogeneously wealthy Zip codes are less generous than equally affluent people in mixed-income communities. If you never see a homeless person or a trailer park, it’s easier to forget they exist.
But a lot of it comes down to the sheer capacity for empathy — and it turns out that some people have more of it than others.
When shown photos of human faces with different expressions, lower-income subjects are better than their more affluent counterparts at identifying the emotions correctly, according to a study by Yale professor Michael Kraus. (This makes some intuitive sense — if keeping your job depends on reading your customers’ emotions, you’ll probably get good at it.) When University of California psychology professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner recorded behavior at four-way stop signs, they found that the drivers of Toyotas and other inexpensive cars were four times less likely to cut off other drivers than the people steering BMWs and other high-end cars. In a related experiment, drivers of more modest cars were more likely to respect the right-of-way of pedestrians in a crosswalk, while half the drivers of high-end cars motored right past them. In other experiments, lower-income subjects were less likely than higher-income individuals to cheat, lie and help themselves to a jar of candy meant for kids.
Strangely, even just thinking about money can make people act more selfishly. When University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Vohs primed study participants with images of money (showing them screensavers depicting floating cash, or asking them to unscramble lists of words that included terms like “cash” and “bill”), they were less likely to give money to a hypothetical charity. And when a research assistant dropped a box of pencils on the floor right beside them (pretending it was an accident), the money-primed subjects were less willing to help pick them up.
Does this mean wealthier people are inherently more selfish and self-absorbed, and lower-income people inherently more generous and empathetic? Or did being rich or poor make them that way?
There is “an obvious chicken-and-egg question to ask here,” Michael Lewis wrote in the New Republic in 2014. “But it is beginning to seem that the problem isn’t that the kind of people who wind up on the pleasant side of inequality suffer from some moral disability that gives them a market edge. The problem is caused by the inequality itself: It triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains.”
Indeed, when University of North Carolina researcher Keely Muscatell showed high- and low-income subjects photos of human faces with accompanying personal stories, the brains of the low-income subjects demonstrated much more activity in the areas associated with empathy than the rich subjects’ brains.
Similarly, when University of Toronto researcher Jennifer Stellar showed videos of children at St. Jude’s hospital bravely undergoing medical procedures, lower-income viewers exhibited more heart-rate deceleration — which scientists use as a measure of compassion — than their higher-income counterparts.
This is, of course, not good news for a society with an inequality problem. If being richer makes people less empathetic toward the struggles of others, the people with the most power and resources will be the least inclined to help. And this seems to actually be the case: A 2014 study of Congress members found that while Republican lawmakers favored the same economic policies regardless of their personal wealth, Democratic legislators’ support for certain policies rose or fell in line with their bank accounts. Richer Democrats were more likely to favor lower taxes on the wealthy and decreased business regulation, while relatively poorer Democrats were more likely to support legislation to make college more affordable or increase the minimum wage.
But there are some positive findings. Even though rich subjects’ physiological changes suggest that they feel less empathy for others’ suffering, researchers in another experiment found that rich subjects began to act more empathetically toward others when shown a vivid, emotional video about kids in poverty.
What’s more, everyone, rich and poor, responds better to the plight of a single case than that of a whole group. (Social scientists even have a name for this: the “identifiable victim bias.”) Many Americans only vaguely aware of the Syrian refugee crisis were moved to help when they saw a photo of a dark-haired toddler in tiny sneakers whose body had washed up on the beach after a failed sea crossing. Thousands of strangers sent birthday cards to an autistic 12-year-old boy named Logan Pearson when his mother posted his photo and a plea on social media. A Detroit man named James Robertson received more than $300,000 in donations from strangers after the local newspaper reported that he walked 21 miles every day just to get to work. When a ponytailed 19-year-old in Ohio named Lauren Hill told a reporter that she dreamed of playing college basketball despite her diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, 10,000 people packed the arena to cheer her on.
These blooms of generosity are not replacements for policy-level action that can permanently change the lives of people on the darker side of the inequality spectrum, just as a big tip or a one-time holiday gift to a food pantry doesn’t fundamentally change the long-term arithmetic for a waitress earning $8 an hour.
But what they show is that almost everyone, including the well-off, can be moved to care about the less fortunate and less powerful, in spite of whatever effects wealth may have on them. Individual stories help. Exposure helps. Just paying attention — to the waitress, the person in the crosswalk, the cleaning staff in the corridor of the conference center — helps. Imagination helps, too.
I know a man who runs a large, urban affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit program in which low-income families build their own homes alongside community volunteers and then buy the houses at a reduced rate. On the first day of construction, he tells me, retired guys from the suburbs itching to break out their power tools show up to work with the future homeowner, often a working single mom with young kids who’s never been on a construction site in her life. “They have nothing in common and no idea what to do with each other,” he says.
But the weeks go by, and one guy shows her how to use a circular saw. Another man helps her perfect her swing with a hammer. They suffer together stapling up itchy pink insulation on a 100-degree day and freeze on the frosty afternoon they put up the siding. There is lunch, and laughter, and eventually a house. “And on the last day, when I stand on the front porch and look out over that same group that didn’t know what to do with each other only a few months before, it’s a completely different vibe,” he tells me. “It’s just — ” He pauses, like he knows this going to sound corny. “It’s just love.” She’s better off, and so are her kids. But so are they.
It’s an uphill battle for the well-off to fight the effects of wealth on their minds, to consciously step out of their circles and pay attention to the places where dinner is not certain, where keeping the lights on is a struggle, where a trailer park is a place real people live, not a punch line. Perhaps all of us who do not worry about where our next meal is coming from could stand to widen our lens.
At the very least, it bears remembering that the givers and the takers may not be who we thought they were.