Today Iâ€™m going to talk about the work of social psychologist Paul Piff, whose research interests revolve around social hierarchies, economic inequality, altruism and co-operation. I learned about Piff while working on a French-language documentary inspired by the book Capital in the 21st Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty. In this documentary, Piff explains an experiment in which people playing the board game Monopoly showed disturbing changes in behaviour when they won repeatedly because the researchers had rigged the rules in their favour (more money to begin with, more dice to roll to pass Go more often, etc.)â€”in other words, had given them more power. I have touched on this same subject in an earlier blog post, about Dacher Keltnerâ€™s research on how wealth alienates the wealthy from their humanity. And it turns out to be no accident that these two authorsâ€™ findings are so consistent: as I just discovered this morning, they have published many articles together!
In a 2013 TED Talk, Piff describes the behavioural changes in the subjects who had been given these special advantages. They made more noise when they moved their pieces, displayed more dominant body language, even ate more of the pretzels that had been placed on the table. But most disturbingly, as Piff relates, once they had won a game, they took much of the credit for their success even though they knew that the rules had been rigged in their favour. One canâ€™t help being reminded of something that Piketty has demonstrated over many years of research: the self-satisfaction and lack of empathy shown by so many millionaires even though they owe their wealth mostly to an inherited family fortune. (In this respect, I find the tribute to Bill Gates at the end of Piffâ€™s TED Talk somewhat puzzling.).
Maybe the best hope for breaking this vicious cycle of concentration of wealth that predisposes the rich to exploit the poor even further lies in exposing the rich to environments that, according to Piffâ€™s and Keltnerâ€™s research, can generate empathy faster than you might think, In a 2015 article in The New York Times, they write:
In still other studies, we have sought to understand why awe arouses altruism of different kinds. One answer is that awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.