Saturday, June 22, 2013

Art, Science and Economics

The negative impacts of wealth and greed on human behavior have come under close scrutiny in the literature of the western world for a long time. One finds the subject in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, in the Bible, and in countless novels. It also does not appear to be a subject that will go away any time soon. Economic inequality in the U.S. has taken on epidemic proportions, driven by social and political forces that seem increasingly to propel the direction of large institutions into the hands of sociopaths.

The increasing concentration of wealth under the control of a diminishing proportion of the population is easy to demonstrate, as is the increasingly dysfunctional national economy. Curiously, the people at the top of the heap seem not to have a very clear view of how all this transpires.

At least, that is the way it appears to me when I attempt to discuss socio-economic issues with well-off acquaintances.  The responses I get in regard to concerns about the state of the nation always lead to the rather bizarre notion that it is the people at the bottom who are primarily responsible for dragging down the economy.   They are portrayed as moochers, sucking the life out of the national spirit -- basically, Mitt Romney's 47% argument.  Of course, that assessment didn't play too well in the last election, but the wealthy are undeterred in their allegiance to the proposition.  The corollary to the moral decay of the lower classes idea is that the upper class has achieved its ascendancy through moral superiority and hard work.

An alternative view of the world was explored recently by PBS economics correspondent, Paul Solman, in  a Newshour presentation entitled "Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, 'Pernicious' Effects of Economic Inequality."  Solman interviewed a Berkeley psychology researcher, Paul K. Piff, who had recently completed an extensive study which focused on the differences in ethical behavior associated with economic and social class status.

Here is the Abstract of Piff's paper which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) under the title, "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior":

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

I thought the PBS program did quite a nice job of illustrating the issues brought up in the research, but the PNAS article is also quite clear in its presentation and can be read in its entirety on line*.  While the study authors don't pull any punches, they also are not dogmatic in their conclusions.  They acknowledge that there are obviously many altruistic rich individuals who don't fit the patterns described.  Additionally, some of the traits of greed and selfishness were invoked experimentally in test subjects regardless of class affiliation.

One thing that suggests is that the personality profiles of privileged, greedy people may be somewhat malleable, at least in the early stages.  There are any number of other interesting implications of the study which seem worthy of pursuit, such as cross-cultural and international comparisons, or perhaps some of the ways in which such behavioral patterns become entrenched and dominant at the institutional level.

(*Note: The full PNAS article is available on line at the time of this post, probably because it is in the current issue.  According to the site information, full articles are available only to subscribers for the first six months after publication.  However, I was able to download a pdf copy of the article.)

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