The psychology of privilege

Rich people and bosses – the privileged minority of society – are more self-centred, less empathetic and consider themselves more deserving of their wealth. This isn’t a socialist prejudice. It has scientific backing.

A 2012 study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from top British businesses. The results were compared to the same tests conducted on criminal psychiatric patients incarcerated at Broadmoor special hospital.

It found that on certain accepted indicators of psychopathy – superficial charm, glibness, manipulativeness, egocentrism, a strong sense of entitlement, readiness to exploit others, lack of empathy – the bosses matched or even exceeded the scores of the inmates.

Most of us have experienced a boss whose sole intent seems to be to psychologically destroy the people around them. US psychologist Paul Piff calls it the “arsehole effect”. His studies provide an insight into how the mind rationalises advantage. He found that the wealthier you are, the more entitled you feel.

Piff and other researchers conducted a study in which they observed participants in a rigged game of monopoly. Based on the flip of a coin, one player was given twice as much money as the other, earned twice as much for passing “Go” and was given more opportunities to move around the board.

The study observed that the rich players started to become ruder to poor players, less sensitive to their plight and more and more demonstrative of their material success. They also helped themselves to more pretzels from a bowl placed strategically on the table.

At the end of the game, players were asked to account for their success. The winning players talked about the choices they had made to buy properties and earn success, i.e. they provided subjective reasons for their victory and ignored the systemic advantages given them and the lucky flip of the coin.

The rich have many elaborate social rituals to prepare the born-to-rule for their privileged position in society. Those born into money learn from a very young age about their privilege and alleged superiority. In private schools and university colleges there are no end of barbaric initiation rituals that further train them in callousness. It’s all about becoming confident in their right to rule.

But the few who climb the ranks from the working class must be just as ruthless. Bosses are always in competition with their fellow “players” in the business world. Workers are more like the pieces on a monopoly board than poor participants in a rigged game.

What presents as psychopathic behaviour is actually the expression of the way capitalist society is structured. To run a business in a competitive world, you have to make decisions that place last the interests of other human beings – usually the least affluent.

Under capitalism psychopaths such as these are not born, they are created. It’s not really surprising: once a person assumes a privileged position in society, lack of empathy and readiness to exploit others become not only competitive advantages but necessary just to stay in the game.

That’s reflected more broadly in the attitudes of the super-rich. The Russell Sage Foundation in the US polled people with an average income of $1 million a year or more for The Campaign for America’s Future conference this year. The perspective of these elites was compared with responses from members of the general public from other polls such as Pew and Gallup.

As you might expect, the results were not pretty. While 68 percent of the US public agree with the statement that “Government must see that no one is without food, clothing or shelter”, only 43 percent of elites concur. An even lower proportion, 40 percent, agree that “the minimum wage should be high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line”, while 78 percent of the public were in favour.

Such disregard for the welfare of others may seem sadistic to the rest of us, but for the capitalists it’s just sound business sense. No doubt, there is much wisdom in the union saying “Scum rises to the top”.