By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an Emancipation Proclamation of sorts for campaign money. No longer, based on the 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, would individual donors be held to limits on their total donations in any given campaign season. That decision has unleashed another wave of public disgust over the role of money in politics. The perception of the Court's grant of even more access and influence to the very wealthy reflects, to many Americans, a system that protects economic advantage and enshrines entitlement and greed. Now, whether these perceptions are valid or whether they're the products of misdirected "class warfare," these perceptions are nonetheless real. And these doubts over the motives and ethics connected to wealth are actually well-established in social science research.
A long line of social psychology studies, usefully summarized in an eight-minute video (embedded below and linked here), shows that wealth -- or more specifically, the feeling of having wealth or advantage -- leads to a belief in entitlement: If I have this advantage, it must be because I deserve it. That subjective belief in a special status, as I've written before, can make people more punitive and more likely to believe that class characteristics are essential and immutable. According to the line of research led by Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley, the entitlement brought on by perceived wealth also causes people to downplay ethics, to behave less ethically, and to rationalize and support greed. The experimental support for these findings is surprising and robust. The bottom line reveals a fundamental dynamic for those seeking to understand human behavior and communication: Our views of where we stand in the pecking order mediate a whole host of attitudes and actions. The importance of this dynamic isn't limited to the occasional blue blood sitting in your jury box, but also extends to witnesses and parties as well.