What makes a rich man stingy?

How money begets greed and avarice

Rich people tend to show a lack of generosity and consideration for people and morals. But they only do that if they live in societies where extreme economic inequality prevails. In the egalitarian, they are generous.

The rich man is no good, poets and thinkers of all times and cultures agree, as do founders of religions: A camel is more likely to get through the eye of a needle than Charles Dickens' Scrooge into the kingdom of God, Uncle Dagobert and Gordon Gekko will not make it either. Her heart is made of money or greed for it, and in the catechism of the Catholic Church that ranks high among the deadly sins (avaritia). But aren't the named caricatures, devised by another bad trait, envy, a mortal sin too? Doesn't the self-imposed motto “noblesse oblige” apply especially to those who have a lot - in terms of origin and / or money? And shouldn't the generosity, which the poor can only afford with privation, naturally grow with wealth?

This has been explored by sociologists and psychologists, especially in the USA, for example with the "dictator game". This has two participants, one of whom receives money from the game master and can give the other as much as he wants, nothing at all. As often as this experiment was repeated, the finding was monotonous: the rich give less than the poor, in the laboratory even absolutely, and statistics in California, for example, show that they also do it in real life, there relatively. And it's not just about money, it's also about power and the behaviors associated with it.

Rich? Hit the gas before the zebra crossing!

For example, empathizing with others and being considerate of them: If test subjects are told in the laboratory that someone has cancer, the rich people feel less empathetic. Or, outside of the laboratory, behind the wheel: A team of psychologists led by Paul Piff (Berkeley) took a stand on the streets of San Francisco and kept their eyes and cameras open to see how drivers of certain cars deal with others and with pedestrians: The Others cut more often with expensive bodies and tended to accelerate at zebra crossings, while those in rust arbors did the opposite. Back in the laboratory it became clear that this selfishness and the corresponding disregard for others had a broad impact, for example in mock job interviews: If the personnel managers are embodied by the rich, they look much more often at the cell phone or the watch, they are also less reluctant to lie to their counterparts and not to mention that the long-term job will be canceled soon.

"Individuals with an upper class background behaved more unethically in both the real world and in the laboratory," concluded Piff, adding, however, that enough exceptions confirm the rule, with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet at the forefront of notoriety ("Pnas" 109 p. 40482 ). And of course there are also poor people who are full of greed and consider greed as awesome. But the others also succumb to seduction, as demonstrated by an experiment in which, again in the laboratory, there was something to be won, Francesca Gino (University of North Carolina) carried out it: test subjects should roll the dice, there was money for the results the more, the higher the litters were. The test subjects were alone and reported their dice afterwards.

How that turned out depended - for rich and poor alike - on the equipment of the laboratory: One time it was a bleak room, the other time a lavishly furnished room with tons of money lying around: This led to fraud (“Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes "109, p. 142). Obviously it is less about the character of people and more about the behavior they adopt under the power of money, the philosopher Karl Marx saw this and coined the term “character mask”: The capitalist is not evil, he plays that of money or role written in his hedge.

But even this role is not a dictate, and something completely different can play a role in the decision on the generosity of a gift: the distribution of wealth and poverty in the respective society or the knowledge about it. Stéphane Cóte (University of Toronto) had this suspicion since he had noticed that many of the relevant studies, such as the Piffs, had been done in California. The phenomenon of the stingy rich was not evident elsewhere, for example in the Netherlands and Germany.

Equality promotes generosity

This may be due to the fact that wealth is distributed more egalitarian there, while in California the gap is extremely wide. So Cóte invited test subjects to the dictator game, not only in California, but across the United States. In California and similar states, the result was the same: the rich gave less. But they didn't do that in more egalitarian states, where they gave more, while the poor always gave the same amount. Statistics available across the country also confirmed the finding (“Pnas” 11/23).

And how does he explain himself? It can simply be because the more generous empires avoid the centers of inequality and prefer to live where there is more egalitarianism. Or psychology can come into play: To be at the top in an unequal society can make you proud - or fear of falling, both can harden, Cóte wants to clarify it in follow-up attempts.

("Die Presse", print edition, November 24, 2015)