My office is located in an urban village in the heart of Delhi. Originally surrounded by fields where people grew crops, these areas now house apartment blocks and shopping malls. All that’s left of the old village is the cluster of houses in which many of the erstwhile residents live, and where a few small traders have set up offices and shops. Some old practices remain though, and there’s a strong sense of community. Come evening, houses in Shahpur Jat empty as women and children spill out on to the narrow streets where a village haat – a market where you can get fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, eggs, plastic goods and virtually anything else you care to name – springs up. Or at least, that’s how it was until about a year ago. I still remember the day that marked the beginning of the end of this little daily ritual.
It was around 6 o’clock on a late summer day, not yet dusk. As people shopped and went from cart to cart selecting the best and sometimes the cheapest, cars and auto-rickshaws negotiated the narrow gaps between them, taking care to avoid children and animals.
Then along came a large SUV, driven by a young and obviously wealthy man. He honked loudly for people to get out of his way; no-one really bothered. He tried again, he leaned out of the car and shouted, he revved up his car. No effect: the cart standing nearby was doing brisk business, another one went past and gently grazed his car. Suddenly, before anyone could realize what was happening, this young man leapt out, caught hold of the cart laden-with-onions standing in front of his car, tipped it over, spilling its contents on to the road, lifted the heavy metal scales and hurled them at the vendor, who just managed to duck and escape being badly injured. People scurried away, the young man stalked off, climbed unhurriedly into his car and drove off. Since that day, the village market has disappeared, the people are too frightened to come on to the road, children don’t play there and cars can now drive freely down it.
This isn’t an unusual scene in India and it’s not about road rage. It’s about being rich, and the privilege, callousness and arrogance that comes with it. It’s something I’ve always wondered about: the rich have so much, what does this wealth do to their minds that they always want more, they don’t want anyone else to have anything? Indeed, why does wealth make them lose all sense of humanity and compassion?
Let me tell you another story: my neighbour in the upper-middle-class area where I live is a man who owns luxury hotels. His house is huge, but no sooner had he moved in than he appropriated about half of the pavement space to the front and side of his house, claiming it for his own. This means less parking for others, less pavement for children, less walking space for everyone. Of the 400-odd houses in this area, at least half have done this. At the same time they have also collectively seen off the only roadside tea stall in the area that served all the service providers – the guards, the drivers, the domestics, the sweepers.
Who could study the rich?
Where does this kind of behaviour come from? You’d think if people had more than they need, they would be generous about it, and would see, reflecting on themselves, that others might want to have more as well. Not so. Until recently, every time I asked myself this question, I wondered if I was just being prejudiced, or imagining things. And then I read about the experiments carried out in the US by researchers Michael Kraus, Dacher Keltner, Paul Piff and others about what wealth does to people socially and psychologically – their conclusions are telling.
Who in India would have the temerity to study the rich?
There haven’t, to my knowledge, been any such studies in our region of the world. Indeed, in India, it’s always struck me as strange that, while there are any number of books about the poor (perhaps they provide an easy subject because they’re poor and don’t have the power to refuse to be subjects of research), there are no studies about the rich or their behaviour.
The question does arise: who would study the rich, or perhaps we should ask who could study the rich? In a society that is so deeply hierarchized along both class and caste lines, which scholar or scientist would have the temerity, and the access, to do so?
For us, wealth is so completely tied in with political power, and often to crime without punishment. Take any recent scam in India and you will find proof of this.
Recently, two wealthy brothers, fighting over a piece of property, shot each other dead. The history of their many businesses showed how liquor licences had been sold to them by the state at ridiculously reduced prices. The nexus of industry and politics is exceedingly tight; and the media are tied into this too – without advertising from the corporates, they would not survive.
This somewhat lethal combination has acquired the status of a ‘natural truth’ in India’s hierarchized society and it is seldom questioned. The behaviour of the rich is taken as just that, and the oft cited refrain is: ‘that’s what they are like!’
The culture of taking
Indeed, the ferocious sense of entitlement that the rich carry with them at all times has also helped to legitimize so many inequalities in India. Take, for example, a simple urban phenomenon: parks within the city. These are the places where poor people can hang out, do nothing sometimes, and where the homeless often find a bed. But the assumption seems to be that our public parks are only meant for the rich, and so the poor are often pushed out and denied entry.
Eating the children’s sweets
In recent years, scientists in the US have been investigating the ways in which having money affects personality and behaviour. Their results have been remarkably consistent. The rich are different – and not in a good way. Their life experience makes them less empathetic, less altruistic and generally more selfish, according to Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘We have done 12 separate studies measuring empathy in every way imaginable... and it’s the same story...’1
For example, less privileged people are better at deciphering the emotions of people in photos than rich people. In video recordings of conversations, the rich are more likely to check cell phones, doodle, avoid eye contact; while less privileged people make eye contact and nod their heads more often, signalling engagement.
In another test, when poorer people were awarding points representing money, they were likely to give away more than richer people.
Keltner also studied the activity of the vagus nerve, which helps the brain to record and respond to emotional inputs. When participants are exposed to pictures of starving children, for example, their vagus nerve becomes more active. Keltner has found that those from poorer backgrounds experience more intense activation.
One of his students, Jennifer Stellar, did a similar experiment using heart rate, which slows with feelings of compassion. Unlike those of poorer students, the heart rates of the richest students did not change when they viewed pictures of children with cancer. ‘They are just not attuned to it,’ Stellar told the New York Magazine.2
In 2012 another University of California researcher, Paul Piff, published a paper entitled ‘Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behaviour’. Using quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations and field studies, Piff also found that living high on the socio-economic ladder makes people less ethical, more selfish, more insular and less compassionate.
One experiment showed that rich participants, when placed in a room with a bowl of candy designated for children, were the most likely to help themselves to the sweets. Another showed they were three times more likely to cheat than those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
In another study, Piff and his researchers spent three months observing the behaviour of drivers at the busy intersection of two major highways. They graded cars one to five, with five the most expensive. They found that drivers of grade-five cars were the most likely to cut off other drivers. Piff then devised an experiment to test drivers’ regard for pedestrians. A researcher would enter a zebra crossing as a car approached. Half of the grade-five car drivers cruised right into the crossing, regardless of pedestrians. ‘It’s like they didn’t even see them,’ said Piff.2
Can the rich redeem themselves? It will take another set of studies to show what happens if they give their riches away.
Michael Kraus, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, ‘Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, August 2011.
Lisa Miller, ‘The Money-Empathy Gap’, New York Magazine, July 2012
There’s also a particular way in which the rich adopt the moral high ground. In a recent incident, three poor Dalit boys inadvertently caused a small fire in a local community centre where they worked. Their local community leader pleaded with the centre manager to let them off with a warning, but he was told, in no uncertain terms: ‘No, you can’t be soft on these people, they have to be punished, else they will never learn.’ Very likely, all three lost their jobs. Very likely, they were the only earning members in their families.
The studies in the US speak of the ‘culture of taking’ that comes with privilege. So, for example, the better-off person is more likely to take sweets meant for a child than a less well-off person. If you replace sweets with money, you’ll find this is rampant in India. Funds set aside for development schemes that are supposed to help the poor, are frequently siphoned off by the rich. Land that belongs to the poor – including adivasis – is taken for setting up factories (the Nano plant, for example) without compensation ever being paid.
Why do those who have so much want more? Why do they behave so badly towards their fellow human beings, and why is their behaviour so widely accepted as ‘natural’? Perhaps the day is not far off when we, in what are known now as emerging economies, will start to look for answers to these questions.
Urvashi Butalia is a feminist and historian who founded the independent non-profit publishing house Zubaan in 2003. She is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.