This election season has exposed many things about American culture, but attitudes towards wealth and how the very rich in America should be taxed has been a bit of a focal point. Trump and Clinton diverge pretty radically in how they think wealth should be treated; but, particularly considering that both candidates are extremely wealthy people themselves, it's worth taking a moment and looking at precisely how wealth can skew perspective, affect happiness, adjust political ideas, and the science of its impact on environments, relationships, and empathy. Based on the science, the fact that Clinton is still stumping for redistribution of wealth via taxes — despite the fact that her family's net worth is about $111 million — is pretty surprising. (It's less surprising for Bernie Sanders, whose net worth was the lowest of all the people in the race.) Money really does change how people look at the world, and the scientific studies about wealth back that up.
Full disclosure: my parents are wealthy. I went to expensive schools, had private tutors, and one grandparent had a Bentley; and as a consequence I am very familiar, first-hand, with what wealth does to happiness, psychology, politics, social positioning, concepts of safety and achievement, and other aspects of human functioning. There is a distinct language in the higher socio-economic echelons, a model of behavior, and, it seems, a group of psychological traits and physical attributes that just kind of come with the territory.
Whether it's lowered empathy or more bugs, the rich really are from another planet. Here are six ways in which being rich substantially alters life, in case you're wondering what will happen to you when your kitten gif start-up takes off.
Money Really Does Buy Happiness, Especially After $75k
According to a now-famous study from Princeton in 2010, the perception that money can in fact buy happiness is accurate, but we don't get remarkably happier as we get wealthier. The "happiness mark," if the study is to believed, is an income for $75,000 per year. Up to that point, people's moods are significantly influenced by money worries; beyond it, they're influenced by other things. $75k appears to be the "money is no issue" point for most modern Americans.
Fascinatingly, though, life satisfaction, the concept that your life is worthwhile and gives you pleasure, increases as income goes up by 10 percent, regardless of how much you start with. We get as much of a boost going from $25,000 to $27,500 as we do from a raise from $100,000 to $110,000.
The Wealthier You Get, The Less Compassionate You Are
If you imagine that the extremely wealthy (with the exception of philanthropists like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates) don't actually care about the little people, you may actually be right. A series of studies have found that people with more wealth are less likely to be empathetic or compassionate; they're more likely to cut across intersections without giving way, take candy from children, and lack a strong physical "compassion" response while watching cancer patients suffering. They're less likely to pay attention to passers-by on the street, and can't read people's emotions as clearly as those in lower socio-economic groups. It seems clear that wealth does something pretty substantial to how we treat other people.
Empathy doesn't automatically turn off as the numbers in your bank accounts rise. It seems to be a combination of certain different factors: as you feel "safer" with more money, you're less inclined to see other people as beings worth assisting, and more as threats to your own status. And wealthy people aren't reliant on others for help (at least not without paying them), and so don't see as much personal benefit in giving aid or being empathetic. Empathy, it seems, is like a muscle. If you're paying somebody to do your childcare, you're likely to be a bit less empathetic than those who need to maintain close relationships with neighbors and friends to make sure their kids are supported.
Rich Homes Have More Bugs
A study this year found that, hilariously enough, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to have a wide variety of bugs in your house — and not because the houses of the wealthy tend to be enormous. Scientists sampled 50 different homes in Raleigh, North Carolina, from all parts of the wealth spectrum, and found that those in luxury neighborhoods had an average of about 100 different bug species running around under their floorboards and in dark corners, while the less wealthy ones averaged about 50. It wasn't related to the size of the homes, either; it's likely a product of the increased biodiversity of wealthy neighborhoods, because they can have vast gardens filled with plants, attracting more bugs.
The Wealthy's Ideas About Taxes & Fairness Are Skewed
It's one of the oldest ideas in the book that the young and poor tend to be more left in political thinking, believing in wealth redistribution through taxes and other means, while the older and wealthy are less inclined to favor it. (Trust me, there is nobody more against taxing people according to their income than old white hedge fund managers chatting at a golf club.) And scientific studies have recently backed this up: two different studies over the past few years have demonstrated that the experience of wealth, and of having wealthy friends, does substantially affect how people feel about taxes and helping others.
The really interesting thing about the studies is that they identify specific aspects of wealth that drive perspective, and they're not just about the money in your bank account. A 2015 study from the University of Auckland found that having wealthy friends is the real thing that matters: if you're rich and all your friends and neighbors are rich (which is what often happens), you develop a skewed perspective of what "normal" is, and don't really understand the need to give any help to others. "Wealthier (relative to poorer) Americans reported moving in wealthier social circles, and extrapolated from this experience in estimating average wealth across America," the Association of Psychological Science explained. "In turn, these estimates led to perceived fairness of wealth distribution in America—and to opposition to redistributive tax policies." Wealthy people are just more likely to believe the system is fairer.
The other study highlighted a different aspect of wealth that affects their feelings on taxes: "feeling" wealthy. Regardless of the actual amount of money they had, the study, mounted by the University of North Carolina, found that it was how wealthy people felt relative to everybody else that changed their minds. Being well-off, it seems, is at least partially in the mind; if you feel you belong in the elites, with their gated communities and expensive holidays, you're likely to reject the idea that you should be paying high taxes.
Straight Men With Money Are More Likely To Prioritize Looks In Romantic Partners
You probably suspected this one already, but now it's been proven. It turns out, according to a study done among Hong Kong college students and released in May this year, that perceptions of our own wealth can have a significant impact on our personal relationships, although it's not equal between the genders.
The students, all of whom were in long-term heterosexual relationships, were made to feel either wealthy or poor, and then had their "mating behavior" examined. The results were very intriguing: "wealthier" male students were more interested in the attractiveness of partners and more likely to prioritize short-term liaisons, while "wealthier" women didn't seem to care as much about their partners' handsomeness. "Wealth" also increased confidence: when people were told they were rich, they were more likely to sit close to an attractive member of the opposite sex.
Living In A Wealthy Area Makes You More Materialistic
In news that will bring no surprise to anybody who's spent any time around rich people, a 2014 study from San Francisco State University found that living in wealthy surroundings encourages materialistic behaviors and a lot of irresponsible spending, because you feel as if you're "lagging behind" if you aren't capable of keeping up with the latest iPhone or comparing elaborate schooling options for your kids. The problem, the researchers stated at the time, is "relative deprivation," the sensation among the wealthy that they don't have the same advantages as the slightly wealthier people living next door. It's a particular problem with the young, apparently.
So it appears the idea that the wealthy seem to be somehow inherently disconnected from how the "rest of us" live isn't actually an exaggeration; it seems to be good science. Next time you meet an extremely wealthy person, be aware that you may well genuinely be talking to the closest thing to an alien you're likely to meet.
Images: Paramount Pictures; Giphy