The assumption of privilege

Not that I’m particularly in the mood to throw increasingly expensive fuel on the fires of class warfare, but this paragraph demanded attention:

Observers of human nature have long puzzled over the possibility of an ethical class divide. On the one hand, people with fewer resources and dimmer prospects might be expected to do whatever’s necessary to get ahead. On the other, wealthy types may be more focused on themselves, because money, independence, and freedom can insulate people from the plight of others. They may also be less generous: Studies involving money games show that upper-class subjects keep more for themselves, and U.S. surveys find that the rich give a smaller percentage of their income to charity than do the poor.

This latter point, I suggest, is due to a combination of tax preferences and self-aggrandizement: all else being equal, J. Gotrocks Lucre is most likely to want to clothe his do-goodery in the raiment of the J. Gotrocks Lucre Foundation.

(I am indebted to the lovely Tamara K. for reminding me that you almost never see “lucre” unless it’s prefixed with “filthy,” and that in combination thereof it means “lots of money in the hands of people you think are icky or shallow or otherwise undeserving.” Perfect.)

Still, dishonesty, as George Carlin pointed out, is still the second-best policy, which leads to this:

To see whether dishonesty varies with social class, psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues devised a series of tests, working with groups of 100 to 200 Berkeley undergraduates or adults recruited online. Subjects completed a standard gauge of their social status, placing an X on one of 10 rungs of a ladder representing their income, education, and how much respect their jobs might command compared with other Americans.

The team’s findings suggest that privilege promotes dishonesty. For example, upper-class subjects were more likely to cheat. After five apparently random rolls of a computerized die for a chance to win an online gift certificate, three times as many upper-class players reported totals higher than 12 — even though, unbeknownst to them, the game was rigged so that 12 was the highest possible score.

This is the part that made me blink, though:

When participants were manipulated into thinking of themselves as belonging to a higher class than they did, the poorer ones, too, began to behave unethically. In one test, subjects were asked to compare themselves with people at the top or the bottom of the social scale (Donald Trump or a homeless person, for example). They were then permitted to take candies from a jar ostensibly meant for a group of children in a nearby lab. Subjects whose role-playing raised their status in their own eyes took twice as many candies as those who compared themselves to “The Donald.”

It would be interesting to see just how easily people are manipulated into Synthetic Empathy™.

Meanwhile, it was nine years ago that I said this:

I don’t automatically assume that I have X coming to me by dint of Y; it has always seemed to me that my only legitimate and unassailable birthright is death. And this, I suspect, is not a commonly-held belief; on the contrary, the world seems to be largely filled with people who think that on the basis of some Y or other, they deserve all the X they can get.

Well, X to you, Mister Lucre, and to all the wannabes out there.

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1 comment

  1. Joseph Hertzlinger »

    22 March 2012 · 10:12 pm

    It looks like the psychologists found that dishonest people claim to have high social class. Why would anybody believe those claims?

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