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  • Writer's pictureSally Khallash

The Asshole Effect

Your crossing a pedestrian crossing when an aggressive driver speeds past you, only centimeters from running you over. Chocked an enraged, you yell at the driver, but alas! He is already gone and leave you a bit shaken.

If you had to guess, do you think the driver was driving a brand new Aston Martin or a mashed up Toyota Corollas?

The research has a pretty clear answer: Drivers in expensive, high status cars behave remarkably more aggressive and selfish than drivers of cheaper cars. In fact, drivers of expensive cars are three times less likely to stop at pedestrian crossings than drivers in cheaper type cars. Similarly, the drivers in expensive cars are four times more likely to cut off pedestrians than drivers in cheaper vehicles.

Other studies show that rich students are more likely to consider stealing or using things that are not theirs, than students from middle class or lower social classes. Even people who are simply primed to feel rich, in experiments ate more of the candy for children than those who were primed to feel worse financial situation.

Are rich people just assholes?

You can call it asshole effect. The term was coined by the American psychologist behind several of the studies, Paul Piff.

Fascinated by the first results, Piff and his colleagues soon began to investigate what caused the bad behaviour. Was it usually assholes who became rich? Or did richness promote asshole tendencies?

It soon became clear that it is the thoughts of become wealthy that creates a sense of "Because I'm worth it" effect - you begin to feel better and more entitled to benefits than others. The richer you are, the more likely you are to agree with statements such as "I feel that I deserve more than other people." And it has a measurable impact on behaviour, as we simply become more selfish.

The asshole society

As our society becomes richer and the gap between rich and poor becomes wider, these behavioural trends are far beyond the individual sphere. The richer a society becomes, the greater the likelihood that it is narcissistic, less empathetic and less willing to take care of the vulnerable in society.

For example, a majority of the American Republicans said that the poors in the US had it too easy. We see the same trends in Denmark with daily headlines about the lazy unemployed and various financial penalties to force them into work.

The greater sense of entitlement among the rich can also lead to revolt against the tax system and the fairness of creating tax shelter as revealed in the Panama papers. It is the logic of "I deserve it" and "why would I spend my hard earned money on the lazy?"

In short, the wealth in itself helps to breed attitudes against redistribution and pro special privileges.

Economic inequality fuels selfishness

As the societal inequality gets larger, the less becomes the propensity to share resources. While there are individual philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, this kind of generosity from the rich is by no means the norm. Studies point to a "richer, the meaner" trend - ie, the more you have to give, the less likely you are to help.

For example, a number of laboratory tests of Vohs showed that the wealthy were less likely to help a person in need. Outside the laboratory, Piff showed that the rich donated a smaller percentage of their wealth to charity than poor. Also, the poor more often donated to charities targeting the needy, while the rich often donated to high status institutions such as galleries, museums and universities. Finally, the more insulated the rich were from the disadvantaged, the less willing they were to help.

Towards greater inequality?

It is important to underline that rich people are not innately selfish; rather, the psychological effects of richness selfish has a number of egoistic effects. Shelfishness is a function of more wealth rather than an inherent feature of rich people.

More importantly, the effects can be overcome! Piff found that when the wealthy were confronted with pictures of children in poverty, they acted more empathetic. Experiments of Dan Ariely showed that we become more helpful and generous, if we see others show helpfulness and generosity.

That means that if the political and social will is present, we can through effective political leadership shape society for more generosity rather than shelfishness.

But as societies become richer, and not least as the policy and decision makers are selected from the societal elites, we need to make a more effort to counter the trends. For the richer we become, the more likely we are to prioritise our own interests above the interests of other people. That is, exhibit behaviour that we normally associate with assholes.


– New York Times: The Money-Empathy Gap

– Guardian: The Age of Entitlement


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