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Wealth reduces compassion (via Scientific American and another guy)

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I'm going to make two points with this posts — one point about Romney, the rubes and wealth. And one point about something the actual, historical Jesus said — not the mythical guy from Paul's dreamy letters; the real one. (To jump to that point, click here.)

First, according to a report in Scientific American, the more you focus your mind on wealth, the less you care about the poor (great find by David Neiwert at Crooks and Liars; my emphasis and paragraphing):
Who is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal—the poor person or the rich one? It’s temping to think that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to act fairly. After all, if you already have enough for yourself, it’s easier to think about what others may need.

But research suggests the opposite is true: as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline.

Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner ran several studies looking at whether social class (as measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) influences how much we care about the feelings of others. In one study, Piff and his colleagues discreetly observed the behavior of drivers at a busy four-way intersection.

They found that luxury car drivers were more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting for their turn at the intersection. This was true for both men and women upper-class drivers, regardless of the time of day or the amount of traffic at the intersection.

In a different study they found that luxury car drivers were also more likely to speed past a pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk, even after making eye contact with the pedestrian.
Synchronicity, simultaneity, but not causation. So then they tried to actually create the results, as opposed to just linking them with car ownership (fascinating experiment design, by the way):
In order to figure out whether selfishness leads to wealth (rather than vice versa), Piff and his colleagues ran a study where they manipulated people’s class feelings.

The researchers asked participants to spend a few minutes comparing themselves either to people better off or worse off than themselves financially. Afterwards, participants were shown a jar of candy and told that they could take home as much as they wanted. They were also told that the leftover candy would be given to children in a nearby laboratory.
So, I get the candy, or I give it to ... little children. Guess who were less inclined to give to the children?

Right the first time:
Those participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were compared to others ended up taking significantly more candy for themselves--leaving less behind for the children.
If you think of yourself as better than others, you're more likely to end up a net taker from the world.

There are two other studies mentioned in the article, followed by some musings about why these results turn out to be true. The studies, briefly:
In one study, they found that less affluent individuals are more likely to report feeling compassion towards others on a regular basis....

In a second study, participants were asked to watch two videos while having their heart rate monitored. One video showed somebody explaining how to build a patio. The other showed children who were suffering from cancer. After watching the videos, participants indicated how much compassion they felt while watching either video. ...

[P]articipants on the lower end of the spectrum, with less income and education, were more likely to report feeling compassion while watching the video of the cancer patients.
The heart rate data tended to confirm those results — slower heart rates imply greater focus and attention. The heart rates of the less wealthy slowed during the cancer video.

Obviously this matters. The report doesn't say if the results were scalable — if greater wealth tended toward greater lack of compassion.

But I'd be shocked if that weren't true, however — especially given reports like this (the context is the wealth-display of super-rich Romney donors):
“It’s incredible, right?” shouts Jeff Greene over the roar of the two-seater dune buggy’s motor. “It’s 55 acres!

Still in his whites from this morning’s tennis match, he’s giving a personal tour of his Sag Harbor estate, barreling at 30 miles per hour through the vast forest of scrubby pines and soft moss of its gated grounds.

“Beautiful nature here!” A blur of deer goes by, and the trees break to reveal the summer sun glinting off a grassy lagoon. Greene slows by its shore.

This is our swan pond, and this is our private beach,” he says, gesturing toward a slip of white sand encircling the edge of the North Haven Peninsula. “It goes all the way to the ferry. Three thousand feet of beach,” he adds, a smile spreading across his tanned face. ...

“I wish we could spend more time here,” he says. “Honestly, we have so many great homes.”
This is Sag Harbor. Fifty-five acres of "beautiful nature" in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and he can't spend enough time there because he has "so many great homes."

No wonder he wants to kick you Lessers all the way to the poor house. If wealth and lack of compassion are scalable, I'd be surprised if this instance of Our Betters had enough soul left to fill a sweathouse worker's thimble, much less his own "swan pond."

Now Jesus on the same subject. One of the most famous quotes in the Bible is this one:
"It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. ... [I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Closely followed by:
"[G]o and sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: [then] come and follow me."
What do these quotes actually mean? The key phrase is "kingdom of heaven" and similar formulations.

I'm not personally religious — I adhere to no religion for what I hope is the obvious reason. But I do believe in doing good work(s), for the other obvious reason. As a result, I pay attention to teachers.

Strip away the Pauline layer of "Jesus was god" from the actual historical Jesus. Throw away the edited-in quotes where "Jesus said" what the writer or polemicist — some them well into the Middle Ages — wanted him to say. (See ex-evangelical Bart Ehrman's deliciously readable Misquoting Jesus for this; you can almost watch quotes change when a new monastery takes up the mass-copying task.)

Do all that and you get close to the core of what a fascinating teacher actually taught. Stuff like (paraphrased):
"If you want god to be infinitely forgiving, you must be infinitely forgiving yourself."
If you care about personal ethics, as I do, this is a powerful point of view, even revolutionary.

There's real research in this field. What quotes were most likely to be historical? And what did they mean in the context of who he was (a Mediterranean peasant — a serf) and where he lived (a first-century Roman colony)? These things can be (and are) studied.

The key work, in my opinion, is John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. And the key research is going on under the auspices of the Jesus Seminar. Again — they don't buy "Jesus as god." That's not their job. What they do is scholarly research into an historical figure whose real thinking can be reconstructed through textual, literary, historical and anthropological analysis. It's fascinating stuff.

So back to the quote about "eye of a needle." Most people think of "the kingdom of heaven" as a place. Crossan argues that for Jesus the kingdom of heaven is a state of mind.

In other words, the "kingdom of heaven" and the "kingdom of god" are inside you. You enter the kingdom of god by thinking and acting like god. That is, the core message of the real Jesus was, "Be the change you wish to see."

If you want to live in a world ruled by a kind, just and forgiving god — be that way in all of your dealings. Tough stuff, right? Now you see where all that "if a man steals your cloak, offer him your shoes" comes from. Be the god you want to see.

In that context, the "eye of a needle" quote makes exactly the same sense as the study results quoted at the top of this article.

Why is it so hard for a rich man to "enter the kingdom of heaven" — i.e., to think like a loving and compassionate god? Precisely because of his wealth — that's the barrier.

How do you fix the problem? Remove the barrier. Thus the second quote about giving your possessions to the poor. Your best shot at re-igniting your compassion — to "have treasure" in the heaven inside you — is to get rid of your wealth.

Wealth is a barrier. There aren't many FDR-types who can get past it. The study and the guy we've just been talking about are in complete agreement on that.

An "easter egg" for those of you who've lasted to this point. Think of the quote —
"Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
in this new light. The meaning? If the "kingdom of heaven" is inside you, only the poor (the destitute, the cast-off, the lepers and homeless) are truly able to "act like god."

Why's that? Because every one in the economic middle adds to the misery of those below them. Crossan's translation is this, memorable in itself:
Only the destitute are blameless.
Everyone but the bottom is complicit — they're the only ones not hurting someone lower.

In modern terms — got iPad?


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

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