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Empathy and Income

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Dr. Michelle Golland: In these tough economic times, it's getting more and more challenging for any of us to feel like "giving" anything right now, whether it be money or our volunteer time. We are stressed out, overworked and fear we are heading into a "double-dip" recession (which sounds like a horrible ice-cream surprise covered in doubt and angst). We're all tightening our belts.

woman holding handing out money

So why do I still feel compelled to give extra money to my housekeeper whose sister is sick, and why I am scrambling to figure out how I can do "lunch bunch" duty at my children's elementary school? In some strange way, the fact that I really don't have that much money makes me more generous than those who have a whole hell of a lot of it! (OK, now I feel better.) Still, I would love to do more -- even when my husband is making a new hole in the belt we need to tighten!

A long time ago, my housekeeper told me that it's well known to housekeepers and nannies that the wealthier the person, the less "nice" and "giving" they seem to be. In other words, the poor are more generous than the rich. Paul Piff, a Ph.D candidate at Berkeley, recently studied this phenomenon; he found that lower-income people are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than those with greater wealth. They are also more attuned to the needs of others, and more committed to the values of egalitarianism.

Piff also discovered that it doesn't make a difference if you were poor before you became wealthy: Once you're rich, you'll still fall into the "less generous" category. Piff's conclusion? People relate to the group they're in, whether that be rich or poor. In terms of group psychology, this makes perfect sense. You see, the poor are more likely to give to neighbors who are suffering from the same problems they're dealing with themselves. The wealthy, meanwhile, are concerned with "institutional" giving, and (like my housekeeper said) they're not so concerned with the poor, or with their own (rich) neighbors down the street.

As the financial and ideological gap between rich and poor keeps increasing, there's less and less common ground; it's becoming harder and harder for either side to imagine themselves in the other's position. Sadly, this will only intensify our social problems. It will make it even more challenging to work together to deal with the enormous challenges that we are facing as a country.

I pray that I will get the chance to prove this theory wrong! If I ever become one of the "wealthy," I hope that I will still be compassionate and empathic toward those who are less fortunate.

How has your charitable giving of money or time changed with the economic situation? What causes or people would you give to if you were one of the "wealthy" people?


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22 comments so far | Post a comment now
michelle September 3, 2010, 9:10 AM

I think this is a feel-good piece and it misses the point. It’s probably true that poorer people are more empathic and giving on a personal level, than richer people. But general, both richer and poorer people see helping others as purely personal and charity driven. They see it as a matter of choosing those people and/or causes that are closest to us and/or the most like ourselves. At the same time, we oppose anything the government might do that could reach many more people in worse need. Why? Because these people are by definition more abstract or are people we see as different from ourselves or somehow “undeserving.” One example I can think of is the opposition (among poor and middle class voters, not just rich) to programs like food stamps and children’s health insurance. Now, I am not saying it is wrong for us to help those around us and those charitable causes we think are worthy. But some balance is needed. And unfortunately many of those most opposed to fighting hunger and disease in our very poorest citizens…are middle class and working poor people themselves.

Marta Perrone September 3, 2010, 1:55 PM

The best thing is to stop thinking about giving nannies and housekeepers things like clothes and items that you don’t want and instead simply pay them properly, on payroll, acknowledging overtime, provide holidays and vacation and consider other professional ways of compensating your employee. These are hard working people who come here to make careers of the housekeeping profession. They are not charity cases and should not be considered as such.

XXXX September 4, 2010, 2:00 PM

Must be nice to have a cleaning lady.

Janna67 September 6, 2010, 9:22 AM

Someone with a regular housekeeper is talking about how the poor are more empathetic? That’s hilarious! I don’t know too many poor people with housekeepers!

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