Does Money Really Make You Meaner?

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The rich are more likely to:

a) Cut off other drivers.

b) Be disinterested in the welfare of others.

c) Cheat on a test to get ahead.

d) Give more to charities.

e) All of the above.

Science has shown that not having much money generally leads to all kinds of not-so-awesome outcomes: shorter life expectancy, higher stress, poorer health and a lack of social mobility. Increasingly, however, the rich are being put under the microscope.

Growing income inequality is providing research fodder for psychologists, economists and others who study what effect money--and socio-economic class--has on a person's behavior.

Overall, research shows that having a lot of money is not necessarily a benefit, at least when it comes to embodying characteristics that lead to inner peace like empathy, honesty and compassion. In fact it's quite the opposite: Money can make you mean, according to this week's cover story in New York magazine.

New York's story follows on a run of coverage looking at the differences between the way rich and poor people think. Last fall, a key study on wealth and empathy at the University of California-Berkeley showed that while the rich have less compassion for others, it isn't because they have faulty hard-wiring. It's because they lack an education from the School of Hard Knocks.

"It's not that the upper classes are coldhearted," Jennifer Stellar, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley said in the study's press release last fall. "They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.

But that still doesn't really explain other experiments in which the upper class displayed a propensity for entitled behavior, like breaking driving laws and cheating. In another study, Paul Piff, a psychologist who studies how money affects behavior, also at the UC Berkeley, showed that drivers of high-end, luxury cars were more likely to cut off other vehicles and even pedestrians trying to cross a sidewalk.

"The rich are more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people," Piff told New York magazine. "It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristic that we would stereotypically associate, with, say, a****les."

Of course, not all rich people are jerks. And some critics of this emerging field say that the studies are motivated by left-leaning ideologies. In fact, some the richest people in the country--such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates--have been the biggest benefactors to charities and foundations that accomplish key humanitarian works.

It's still helpful to remember that the United States is still one of the richest countries in the world on a per capita basis --so quibbling over whether a Mercedes SL driver or a Honda Civic driver follows the traffic laws better seems like a luxury problem in and of itself.