Suppose you’re standing on a footbridge over train tracks. On one side you see a trolley approaching, and on the other you see five railroad workers. Next to you is an overweight stranger. The trolley is out of control, and the workers can’t hear you yelling. The only way to save their lives is to push the fat man off the footbridge into the path of the trolley, killing him. Would you do it?

It seems you’d have to be pretty cold-hearted to shove someone off a bridge into the path of a train. But from another perspective, that is the most beneficial thing you could do, saving the most lives. Empathy, an important ingredient in morality, helps prevent us from assaulting others, which is normally a good thing. But maybe it’s sometimes a bad thing. New research shows that upper-class people have less empathy than lower-class people, but that sometimes this can lead them to do the most good for the most people when their bleeding-heart compatriots won’t.

The paper, authored by Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto and Paul Piff and Robb Willer of Berkeley, was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I mentioned it in Sunday’s New York Times.

About a year ago, Piff, Côté, and three collaborators published a paper in PNAS showing, basically, that rich people are jerks. Its title was “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior.” One test found that drivers of nice cars are more likely to cut people off in traffic. Other work has shown that upper-class people are less compassionate than lower-class people, for instance toward children suffering from cancer. It’s also been shown that lack of empathy makes people more utilitarian—more likely to focus on the consequence of an act, even if the act breaks certain rules. Psychopaths are more willing to push the fat man in front of the trolley. So Côté et al. figured social class might influence utilitarianism.

In the first of three studies reported in the new paper, participants answered several questions online about money worries and about their wealth growing up, for a measure of social class. Then they read the footbridge dilemma. The higher their class, the more likely they were to say pushing is okay (Even controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, religiosity, and political orientation.)

In the second study, participants were told they were playing a game with four other people online, and that they’d randomly been assigned the role of “decider.” Further, they were told that each of the five participants would receive $5, but the decider could take money from one of the other players. Each dollar taken would be multiplied by two and distributed to each of the other three players (but not the decider). So one dollar becomes six. Subjects reported their household income, how much compassion and sympathy they felt for the player who would have money taken from him, and how much money they were going to take. Income was correlated with dollars taken, and this pattern was partially accounted for by reduced empathy. The wealthier the subject, the less he cared about the victim and the more willing he was to steal from him for the group’s overall benefit.

The third study was like the second, but some subjects were asked to write about the feelings of the victim before taking his money. This time, among those who wrote about the victim, there was no class difference in dollars taken. Thinking about the victim’s feelings increased the empathy of upper-class participants to match that of the others.

The researchers suggest wealth and status reduce empathy because money allows one to be independent, rather than relying on others in one’s community for resources and survival (and returning the favor). Instead of borrowing a cup of milk from a neighbor, they send their animatronic butler out to milk their solid gold cow, etc.

“Ironically,” the authors write, “reduced empathic responding leads upper-class individuals to tend to more readily make decisions that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number.” Which is great and good. As long as you endorse utilitarianism (or are a hapless railroad worker). Some would see the stranger-pushing and scream bloody murder.

And even if you’re a utilitarian, you might not want a Richie Richerson in charge of certain ethical decisions. What if the choice isn’t between an identifiable victim with feelings (the fat guy) and a greater good (the five lives) but between a victim and personal advancement? Piff’s earlier work suggests Richie might act in a way that neither a utilitarian nor a non-utilitarian would support, benefiting himself at the expense of others.

There’s also a paper in press reporting that when people become less squeamish about personal harm to others—here the subjects took the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam, but the conclusions could be extended to psychopaths or the rich—they’re more okay with, say, smothering a crying baby to save a family hiding from enemy soldiers, but they’re also more okay with, say, killing a baby because you don’t feel like taking care of it. “We conclude that lorazepam makes people more ruthless in general,” the authors write, “rather than boosting utilitarianism specifically.”

It’s worth noting, as The Atlantic does in their current issue, that the lowest-earning 20% of Americans donated 3.2 percent of their income to charity in 2011, while the highest-earning 20% donated only 1.3 percent. And of the 50 largest charitable gifts in 2012, none went to organizations focused on social service or poverty. The big winners: elite universities and museums. Because, really, holding a charity gala in your honor at a soup kitchen is just so… déclassé.

But if you can get a billionaire to open his wallet, and if there’s no temptation to stick his name on something, he will likely give his money very wisely. Just ask Bill “malaria-B-gone” Gates.

About the Author

Matthew Hutson

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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