Lord Acton said "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It's the only thing anyone remembers about Acton. Was he right? Dacher Keltner
recently put this statement to the test to see if behavior became more antisocial and rude the richer a person was. His researchers found that the drivers of more expensive cars were likelier to cut off others in traffic and not yield to pedestrians. His study constructed other tests to see if people of higher incomes were less considerate, greedier, less empathetic. They tended to be. Not all were, but some, and more than in lower income groups. People also tended to behave less altruistically if the test situation made the subject feel more powerful or superior in some way. Everyone who has ever sworn at a Mercedes can believe this is true, but can it be replicated? Having someone else recast the experiment might tease out the biases and make the results less clear-cut.
The Economist magazine, the magazine by and for the people with money, published a piece on Keltner's experiment.
It begins with a clear and persuasive discussion of the Keltner Inequality Study. The author also discusses the famous Stanford Prison Experiment
in which people were cast as prison guards (the powerful) and prisoners (the powerless). The results showed there was a startling tendency to become less humane, less compassionate, crueler, when ordinary people acquired disproportionate power over others. There were similar results from another study at Iowa State
The Economist then addressed Keltner's replication problem, citing a 2010 study where three European academics, Martin Korndörfer, Stefan Schmukle and Boris Egloff, tried to replicate the Keltner Inequality Study. Their results showed the opposite: higher income people tended to be more generous, more helpful, more considerate. The Economist article did not ask the Korndörfer, Schmukle and Egloff if there were differences in the studies or the subjects that might account for this, so I asked Keltner if there were differences he could think of. One thing about the European study raised questions: it had a difficult time being published. Why? Were there questions about the methodology? What were they?
I wondered about a few things so I sent Dr. Keltner an email:
Matthew Sweet’s discussion of the replication problem doesn’t get into why it might have failed.
Why was that Martin Korndörfer, Stefan Schmukle, Boris Egloff paper rejected?
Rejection tends to have criteria attached to explain why it was rejected. Were there flaws in their approach?
I realize conclusions can be pushed by how questions are asked or how data is collected. Was there bias in their study?
Did your group do things to avoid bias?
It also occurs to me that this replication study was conducted in continental Europe where the economic ideology is very different. There class differences are not small but there seems to be less arrogance among the rich, less sense of righteous entitlement. The absolute goodness of greed is not a given.
Is there, in Europe, a residual sense of “noblesse oblige” by which the gentry acknowledged obligations to the lower classes, something which is not just absent in America but laughed at. In Europe (and once upon a time here) even conservatives recognize and honor certain established institutions of public welfare, the way Eisenhower, for instance, said it was “stupid” for Republicans to urge repeal of New Deal institutions. Might this have skewed the results?
If true, might this be telling us something? Does the removal of governmental coercions (progressive redistributive taxation, tax-based welfare, help and relief in cases of disaster or trouble organized for us by government)––which is justified by the idea that it is unnecessary because people are already generous enough on their own without the government forcing it––does removing the coerced helpfulness end up making people less helpful?
When they are not told to be generous/helpful/kind/courteous do people become convinced that the opposite of these good social behaviors is actually OK?
One might assume that people would be less generous via private giving if the tax system already covered many or most of the public needs. But my reading of European norms and attitudes leads me to think the opposite, that coerced generosity by the power of the society and the government makes people more inclined to generosity beyond what is coerced.
If this seems counterintuitive, I would bring up other counterintuitive behaviors that prevail here in the US, as for instance the phenomenon Thomas Rich studied in What’s The Matter With Kansas, the habit of less affluent voters to vote against their economic self interest in certain regions. Regional group psychology or beliefs can change results by region. In Norway, for instance, everybody knowing what everyone else pays in taxes provides a pressure to not evade and a reassurance that everybody else isn’t getting away with something.
This also raises the influence the modern “religion” of self-reliance has on individual and group behavior. (I call it a religion because it has been preached in a deliberate quasi-religious way to cause Americans to reject the cooperative behaviors and traditions that date back to our founders and the first colonists.)
What I’m asking is this: did the European study’s failure to replicate your inequality studies point instead to fundamental differences in our psychology?
And might this psychological quirk or deviation be the result of this religion of self-reliance or the cult of Reaganomics and the Chicago School of Economics, which taught several generations of Americans that the rich deserve their riches and the poor deserve their poverty (and by implication that the sick and dying deserve to be sick and dying and the uneducated deserve their ignorance and the powerless deserve to be powerless by being barred from voting.)
This might also explain the powerful force that seems almost unique to America, something I call The Rule of Accumulated Advantage, which is sometimes called (rather obscurely I think) The Matthew Effect.
It sounds overlong, hastily written and awkwardly didactic as I read it over again. (I've corrected a few mistakes.) In the impulse of the moment, I had carbon copied a few other academics and thinkers in the area of inequality to see what they would say. A discussion began almost immediately. (The academics were a lot more succinct than I was.)
Almost immediately I heard back from Dr. Keltner in Berkeley. "Check out a recent PNAS paper by Stephane cote and Robb Willer. They look at regional inequality as a moderator of the effects of privilege on altruism
It's relevant to your questions."
I looked up the study he mentioned
, which does take a regional approach. My quick scan of the summary prompted some other thoughts. I emailed him back:
Thanks for replying.
The Cote/Willer study you cite seems to jibe with the racial integration findings discussed by my neighbor Myron Orfield.
Orfield published this summary in the Guardian today.
It would be interesting to see what social scientists learn if they address the questions I put to you. Europe should, perhaps, be studied as a control group where antisocial norms have not replaced the social norms put in place after centuries of hard experience. (Some of these norms were put in place by us after WW2.)
In the past few decades [here in the U.S.] government action has been widely repudiated, which means the positive force and influence government institutions (created by public consensus) had on our social norms of thought and behavior have also been repudiated.
The “repudiators” have rationalized their abandonment of these social norms and corrective actions by saying they weren’t needed, that people were already naturally good natured and fair-minded, but it has, and I believe you could show this, it has had the effect of throwing out those good social norms. (The reactionaries have also shown a bizarre loyalty to previously discredited norms dating back to slavery and Jim Crow.)
One of the architects of the Reagan revolution, Paul Weyrich, jeered at good government, calling it GooGoo and derided the idea of getting everyone to vote.
There is a fundamental dishonesty about the reactionary ascendancy in the past forty years, a casual dismissal of the need for basic rules of fairness has led to a broad and very serious-minded rejection of fairness itself, which has led to a widespread faith that fairness is wrong, that fairness is unnatural, that fairness is unAmerican, and (contrary to my New Testament) that fairness is unChristian.
It might be hard to study and describe this phenomenon without sounding satirical, just as it is hard to report on the Trump phenomenon with the necessary seriousness.
Rereading this I am reminded that I'm a Fox not a Hedgehog: I know a bit about many things rather than a lot about one big thing. Dr. Keltner seems like one of those professors who doesn't mind longwinded questions from overeager students.
One of the people I'd cc'ed was Richard Wilkinson, the director of the Equality Trust. His email arrived while I was replying to Dr. Keltner.
"Another paper which is likely to be relevant is:-
Paskov, M. & Dewilde, C. Income inequality and solidarity in Europe. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 30, 415-432 (2012). It shows that people in more unequal European countries are less willing to help others. Rather than being simply a failure to replicate in Europe the entitlement of the rich shown in the USA, it seems likely that entitlement is influenced by the greater degree of inequality in the US. It would be interesting to try it here in the UK where inequality is higher than the rest of W. Europe.
Someone should write to the Economist."
While I was reading Richard Wilkinson's email and looking up Paskov & Dewilde, I got an email from Mark Blyth, professor of political economy at Brown.
"While we are on it.
I just got back from a conference at EUI in Florence where Sven Steinmo has just completed tax experiments in five countries. Here's the website.
Bottom Line 1: Systematic country differences no matter how you vary the experiment. Brits cheat more than Americans, Italians, Romanians and Swedes. Just happens to scale up nicely (almost) against the country GINI.
Bottom Line 2: If local institutions produce these differences, then the notion of replication has to be localized."
Richard Wilkinson followed up with a letter he was sending to The Economist, though he thought it was probably too late for publication:
"Different research findings on whether or not the rich are more anti-social than others, does not, as you suggest, reflect weaknesses in empirical research (‘Does Power Really Corrupt’ – Economist 3rd May). As you pointed out, the Keltner study which found the rich were more anti-social was conducted in the USA, the Egloff study, which failed to confirm that, was conducted in Europe. New research (Côté, S., House, J. & Willer, R. High economic inequality leads higher-income individuals to be less generous. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2015; 112, 15838-15843) shows that the rich are more anti-social if they live in one of the more unequal states of the USA. A study of 27 European countries found that the more unequal they were, the less willing people were to help each other (Paskov, M. & Dewilde, C. Income inequality and solidarity in Europe. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. 2012; 30, 415-432.). The explanation is likely to hinge on the well established fact that inequality is divisive: it lowers levels of trust and weakens community life so people are more out for themselves."
Dr. Keltner sent this:
"Thanks all for this really productive discussion. I do wish we had more systematic behavioral studies of the kind we do on the diminishment of prosocial and ethical tendencies found to accompany greater wealth in the US. My collaborators -- Paul and Stephane cced here -- agree -- that what we've documented is likely to be influenced by inequality, and many labs are looking into that know - as well as other cultural variables. We're delighted our studies are initiating conversations with many of you, who inspired much of our work."
Considering how busy they are, and the great distance between their grasp of the material and ours, I've always found academics very accessible and patiently. They teach for a living and the wider and friendlier the discussion the more their ideas and information gain traction.
After asking my initial questions I sat down to read what was sent and think about what was said. I also jotted down my thoughts. Being a reader rather than a writer of these kinds of articles and not a social scientist or an academic, I tend to ask questions that presume a certain answer. In our silos of shared opinion we're always having our prejudices reenforced. Scientists test these prejudices and try to suppress their own because it tends to discredit their argument. They also try to discover the reasons for the prejudices and how they work, what they are doing to reshape the consensus.
As I read, questions kept occurring to me:
Perhaps, as these studies seem to show, Americans today do behave with less generosity and courtesy on the upper end of the income scale. (And these studies are only showing greater tendencies not dominant norms.) But if the upper classes are more aggressive and less considerate of others I am guessing the people on the lower end, who suffer these indignities, are probably more passive aggressive. I would guess that the coarse abuse we read in Twitter feeds and comment threads is more of a lower income phenomenon. Abusive language being the last resort of the powerless.
As Americans have become more unequal in the post-Reagan period, have we become different people than we were in our grandparents' generation? More tolerant of inequality but also believers that inequality is proper? (There's been a lot of misquotation and distortion of Adam Smith as the financial and conservative press have tried to rationalize self-centeredness as an American ideal and a public good.)
Has this new pro-inequality bias tended to compound inequality––the Rule of Accumulated Advantage idea I've written about––causing advantages and disadvantages to compound and create greater unfairness? (Do we have a feedback cycle?)
Has the tolerance of inequality led to a celebration and reverence for inequality? (These are philosophical questions more than scientific ones.)
By enshrining and celebrating greater inequality, have we rewritten our rules of social interaction? Have we thrown out the social contract our country was founded upon? My inclination, when I read that Mercedes and BMW and Bentley drivers might tend to be less considerate drivers, is to ask why do they feel they are entitled to cut ahead of us and cut us out? If a study says they are likelier to behave this way I want to know where this rationale came from. Maybe they assume their time is worth more than Toyota drivers; on an hourly income basis, it is. Do they assume they are more important? That their lives are worth more? That ours are worth less? Do they think this through? I saw the European paper showing the opposite was true, at least in Europe, and my question is: do wealthier Europeans, in their less unequal societies, learn to be less arrogant about their superiority, less entitled-feeling? Do they care more about what other people think of them? Have rich Americans levitated above the judgment of others the way they have levitated above tax obligations? If fairness and following rules is "inefficient" for the wealthy few, maybe it is the inefficiencies, the everyday friction with our fellow human beings that makes us better people. Maybe what the European study was showing was the difference between the more conformist, rule-bound Old World and non-conformist, rule-breaking America. Maybe we've always been more ill-mannered.
We have had our own conformist periods. After the New Deal re-sorted and reformed our economy and society there was a long period of greater conformity. The period the Beat Poets and rock and roll criticized and tried to blow up. Perhaps our non-conformist outburst in the 1960s and the Me Decade of the 70s led naturally to the worship of self-interest inaugurated with Ronald Reagan. Or perhaps it dates back to the 30s and 40s when the non-conformists were the elites who preferred the pre-New Deal economy, the one that failed, the rich minority who hated FDR and plotted to overthrow him
It has always struck me as odd that the so-called "conservatives" in our recent public conversation are the ones who are throwing out the past, a recent past that represents the longest and broadest and most stable prosperity our country or any country has ever experienced. They are repudiating not only the customs and institutions created in the broad consensus of the New Deal period and preserved through the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter, but also rejecting centuries of cooperative and anti-elitist social norms dating back to the Founders and the Pilgrims. Are social norms dictated from the top or do they emerge from the masses?
Rugged individualism was a meme invented by cowboy novelists and western movies, but we rarely celebrated lack of empathy or callous cruelty until fairly recently, as decency and fair play became "old fashioned." I'm not sure how "conservative" and "liberal" sort out on this spectrum. Teamwork and equal, fair, regulated competition is a pattern set down not just by our elected governments and by the so-called PC police. It's a tradition played out on the football field (which is our holy of holies), where the hero quarterback is only as good as his offensive line and his receivers. There is rough and tumble but also respect and a basic decency. There are referees; we resent them but without them the game would fall apart.
Where did this new amoral "ethos" come from? Have we become a nation of tax cheats who figure cheating to get ahead is not only all right but the American way? Why do we applaud the degradation of working incomes and the new custom of paying executives as much in a day as their average workers earn in a year––and taxing them at a lower rate?
When you are abroad you hear about a stereotype of Americans. The Ugly American. You hear that we are loud and rude and think we're better than everyone else. This was not our reputation when our G.I.'s helped retake Europe from the Nazis and Asia from the Japanese. Our periods of reconstruction overseas were overwhelmingly powerful yet managed to be basically generous and somewhat self-effacing considering the asymmetry of power. We were admired for that. The Marshall Plan did not seek a profit. I think the arrogance grew over time. We overreached in Vietnam and in Iraq and were criticized for our pains. I think we overreacted to that. But the American military reach was more economic than an expression of our government. It was a business plan. American companies profited from our throwing our weight around globally. They profited when the world was in turmoil rather than at peace. Wars also upset our national psyche. These changes are enormously complex but the large factors can hardly be missed.
The biggest, most arrogant, pushiest, rudest, greediest, least generous forces in American society may not reflect all of us but they tend to define
all of us, and they affect and upset all of us.
When power is concentrated in fewer hands it seems to corrupt the ones with power and it makes the rest of us angrier and less happy.
We used to be better than this.
We behaved better when we were happier and less unequal, when the system was fairer. Before the powerful began telling us fairness was unAmerican. This inequality and the deep sense of unfairness is the reason for a lot of the anger out there. People feel what they've worked for has been taken away and they worry that their children's future has been stolen from them. If left unaddressed, mass grievances of this kind often lead to revolutions, and most revolutions do not unfold as happily as ours did in the late eighteenth century.
In 2009, Dacher Keltner was interviewed by Scientific American.
He had a new book out about the science of being good. Is it a science? Look at it this way: if being jerks makes us less happy as a society, doesn't that prove it? A scientific truth is something that can be subjected to proof. I think the mass experience of the past few decades has proven his theory right.
Labels: altruism, cooperation, Dacher Keltner Inequality Study, inequality, Mark Blyth, Richard Wilkinson, rugged individualism, Scientific American, Stanford Prison Experiment, the Economist, The Equality Trust