The American civic calendar is full of weird dates. Why is election day the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November? Why is Thanksgiving always on a Thursday and not a Friday? Didn’t the Pilgrims approve of the three-day weekend?
The newest of these movable feasts is tax day. It’s April 15, except when it isn’t, like this year, when it’s April 17. The 15th or the 17th, it’s a good moment to consider that the income gap between the very rich and the rest of us hasn’t been this stupendously wide for more than 100 years, since the Gilded Age, before income taxes began. How does big money like that, and the lack of it, affect our ethics and our actions?
At UC Berkeley, in the social interaction laboratory, professor Dacher Keltner studies the nature of emotion, of social interaction, and of power and money. Guess what? The rich really are different from you and me — and it ain’t pretty. If you’re looking for a good excuse to procrastinate from doing your taxes, here it is.
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There may not be a more stressful time of year than tax season. It’s a reminder for people who don't have a lot, of what they don't have, and who they choose to blame it on.
I think it would bring in focus two very important lessons. And the first is, sadly, that money matters, in terms of your well-being. But I hope every policymaker and person with means hears this: We know this to be true, which is, money matters a lot if you're poor. And if you're poor and you're a family of four living on the level of poverty in the U.S., which is $28,000, and you get a raise of $1,500 a year — that means a lot. That means new soccer shoes and better food.
And it just changes well-being. We know scientifically, profoundly and ironically, that if you're making a million bucks and you suddenly get another $100,000 a year, it doesn't matter that much in terms of well-being.
So that the science of happiness and money, on that theme, is really, really relevant to tax policy and how we distribute resources. And regrettably, the Trump tax cut is tone-deaf to those facts.
But the other thing that I think is important to remember is what we learn from the poor, which is there are so many more rewarding things than money, like volunteering, like getting outdoors, and expressing gratitude to a friend, and having the picnic on the weekend with your community and family, and playing with your kids. Those are the big sources of happiness that we have to remember during the tax season, that it is our experiences, more than our products and money, that really make us happy in the long run.
I think the work of yours that has probably gotten you the nastiest avalanche of e-mails is studying the ethical behavior gap between rich and poor, selfish and selfless. I'm sure you've collected some doozies. Has that been the most controversial work you’ve done?
It’s been astonishing. At my lab here at Berkeley, for a long time, we studied power and the abuses of power, and that led to the book “The Power Paradox.” You give somebody power and they become a little less empathetic, and they will speak to a work colleague uncivilly, and be vulnerable to the tendencies that make us harass women sexually.
And then about 10 years ago, we started to document similar things. You bring in a well-to-do person [to study] and they're less empathetic, they read people's emotions less effectively. You show them a film of children who are suffering in hospitals, they have a weaker physiological response associated with compassion.
And then we did this work on the ethical tendencies of the rich and the poor. We found upper-class people are more likely to lie in a gambling game to win some money. They're more likely to take more candy from a bowl that has candy that's meant for kids. They're more likely to blaze through a pedestrian zone when a pedestrian’s trying to cross the street.
And it astonished me and also my colleagues, the hate mail I got out of that, the cynicism, the accusations of being a pinko from Berkeley, et cetera.
Economic inequality in a nation or a state or a neighborhood undermines the well-being of people.
It touched a nerve. The hostility is that people have a very hard time thinking about the nature of privilege, that if you're born into well-to-do circumstances, that's going to have a profound impact on how well you do in life. And that is one of the most robust economic facts about where people are; the station in life they enjoy in the United States, what you're born with, determines what you will end with.
We tell stories about success and pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps and having special talents that get us into this school or what have you. And our [lab] work really challenged those cultural myths of success. It said: “Well, maybe part of the reason people have more than others is because of unethical behavior.” And I think that was one of the reasons that we got a lot of hostility.
At the same time, our evidence challenges the complementary myths that the poor are poor because they don't work hard or they don't have the character, or try to make it. Our studies say actually there's profound morality in poorer communities. There are profound ethical tendencies. And other data show that the poor, on average, work 1.2 jobs just to make ends meet.
Those findings of the unethical tendencies of the well-to-do got such traction. It touched, it challenged this cultural ideology about what it means to be successful in the United States.
I’ve taught these findings to people in workplaces and organizations, and I can see it in their eyes, like, “Oh God, you mean if I get really successful I'm going to be driving through a pedestrian zone, or swearing at my colleagues?”
But any student of society sees this happening time and time and time again. We have sexual abuses in churches and sexual harassment at work, and Enron crises, and the financial meltdown, and President Trump — on down the line. You just see it happening over and over.
You know, we're in this big, slow transformation in our culture where, for a thousand years, we've really had this one theory of power, of what it means to make it, and it's kind of the dog-eat-dog, Machiavellian view of power that you just take people down to rise to the top.
And Alice Eagly at Northwestern [University] and some of her colleagues have been charting how the nature of our thinking about power and leadership has changed in the last 50 years. We want our leaders to be a little bit more empathetic as well as assertive. We want them to be kind as well as forceful in certain circumstances.
And so we're in this moment where those two ideas about leadership are at play and going toe to toe. What does it take to really make it in the world? To be Machiavellian and harsh and cruel? Or to be kind and collaborative? And you need a mixture. That’s why Trump in some sense has been such a polarizing figure, as he speaks to these different ways of thinking about power.
You wrote about what would happen if a poor person ran the U.S. economy. How different would a society look if that were the case?
When I grew up, I had this really interesting experience that inspired all of this research on the rich and poor. We moved to a really poor town, and I was blown away at how altruistic and kind, collaborative and willing to sacrifice those people were — as kind as any community I have ever been around.
And that led to this science that shows that when you're poor, you listen to people better, you are more empathetic, you believe in a more egalitarian distribution of resources. You're more sensitive to those who suffer, right?
And I feel that experiences of being poor open your eyes to this in permanent ways, and craft policy that leads you to think, maybe we have too many people in prison, maybe we should think about getting healthcare, and the practice of distributing health to all people.
So I think that if more of our leaders had experiences of being poor, just the basic determinants of inequality would attenuate. They’d diminish.
I think of a president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was rich, who practiced I suppose what for the time was called noblesse oblige. Have you done any work about a switch in how the rich may see their roles in this country?
I think there are a couple of really interesting things to take into consideration here. We know economic inequality has risen dramatically, that in the last 50, 45 years have seen this precipitous rise in inequality.
And we know from work in my lab when you're living in conditions of inequality, the privileged act all the worse — it amplifies their self-serving tendencies. So that's one thing to keep in mind.
The other thing to really always be mindful of when you think about these historical examples is to think of their lives and what happened in their lives that led to energized forms of noblesse oblige. Lyndon Johnson, when you read Robert Caro's biography of him as a young man, did a lot of hard physical labor, worked in the fields with poor people and one has to imagine that influenced his ideas about the Great Society.
I can't help but wonder you know, gee, if Donald Trump had done that, what would he be saying today?
Every year there are measurements from the United Nations about world happiness, and virtually every year, Americans score lower and lower. Are they measuring the wrong thing? Do we as Americans have a different idea of happiness than the rest of the world?
Those findings are so important for us as a culture to reflect on where we are, and we usually come in like 17th, 20th out of 150 countries or so that are measured. I don't think it's a measurement problem. Sometimes they have more complicated, multidimensional measures — How well are people getting along? Is there violence? And the like.
I take those findings that the U.S. underperforms in happiness to just beg the question of, what’s going on in our country right now? Maybe we're spending too much time on a smartphone. Maybe 59 minutes a day on Facebook undermines our happiness. Maybe mass incarceration. Or the economic inequality which is now a focus in social science and is being found to reduce everybody's happiness.
So I think those culture findings are a call to action. How can we make our country better if we're underperforming like that? The new literature is finding economic inequality in a nation or a state or a neighborhood undermines the well-being of people. This kind of gut feeling about a healthy society is, everybody has roughly the same chance in living circumstances. And when we deviate from that, it hurts us. We become envious, contemptuous and the like.
There are really interesting case studies that some countries that have more or comparable economic inequality often do really well in levels of happiness, like Mexico. And I think social scientists look at those findings and they think about, “What is it about the social dynamics in Mexico that boost their happiness despite economic inequality?”
One conclusion is they are really communal, right? They have stronger face-to-face communities than you might find in the United States. And we know being connected with others is probably the strongest pathway to happiness.
You study the science of happiness. What are the metrics in studying happiness?
For a long time, people didn't think that it was possible to reduce this abstract and varying concept of happiness to scientific measurement. There are the most widely used tools, which is just to ask people and they'll say how well is their life going, or how satisfied they are.
And then you can measure how happy you are in terms of different operations of your nervous system, the pattern of brain activation in the left hemisphere which is associated with happiness, how elevated is the vagus nerve in your body. “Vagus” is “wandering” in Latin. The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that wanders from the top of your spinal cord through your throat, down to your heart and lungs, and into your immune system in your digestive system. It basically just makes your body open and content and connected.
The Declaration of Independence didn’t talk about guaranteeing happiness — it talked about the pursuit of happiness. Isn’t the pursuit itself stressful?
One of the interesting things that's emerged in this science of happiness is how, when we manically pursue happiness and we try to maximize our happiness in every situation, it actually backfires — findings that the pursuit of happiness can be its own undoing.
[Happiness] comes through more intuitive processes rather than willfully forcing it. So those findings about the perils of pursuing happiness too forcefully are a really important reminder to embrace how complicated it can be.
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