The Compassion Deficit

It’s not news anymore, but it’s still a surprise:  the poor are more generous than the rich. “For decades, surveys have shown that upper-income Americans … are particularly undistinguished as givers when compared with the poor…. lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans.”  See, “The Charitable-Giving Divide” in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

A PhD candidate at Berkeley, Paul Piff, recently repeated that finding – and more:  “lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.”

It’s tempting to think that the rich are richer because they are more selfish or single-mindedly focused on their own advancement, but Piff’s research suggests otherwise.  His experiment primed subjects by showing sympathy inducing videos and encouraging them to imagine themselves in different financial circumstances.  That changed their reactions — for both sets of subjects.  In other words, the poor, imagining themselves rich, became less altruistic.   The rich, imagining themselves poor, became more generous to the destitute and ill.  Piff concluded:  “Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients” in the generosity of the poor.

If we think of this in group terms, it makes perfect sense.  Members of each group will identify with other members of the group to which they belong.  Their issues will resonate more deeply.  The rich will find it easier to give to the cultural institutions they and their friends patronize as well as the colleges and universities they attended.  The poor will give to the neighbors suffering from the same problems they are struggling with or to the causes closer to home.

As the gap between the rich and poor in our society grows – as it has been growing — this divide will only get greater.  Crossing over will not only be more difficult to accomplish economically, it will be harder for us to project ourselves imaginatively across it.  The rich will not get the point of extending unemployment insurance, and could even easily talk themselves into believing that such a helping hand might make workers lazy.  The poor will get bitter about the tax cuts the rich keep insisting will trickle down benefits for all.

In other words, the psychological effects of group process will intensify our social ills and make it more difficult for us to function politically as a whole.  It’s already on the edge of impossible.