The Dynamics of Compassion

Psychologist Paul Piff ’04 unveils the link between socioeconomic status and altruism—and finds hints of a path to a kinder society.

By Marty Smith ’88 | March 1, 2017

Paul Piff wasn’t planning to lead a scientific assault on the morals of the One Percent. He was just following the data.

“It was an accident,” he admits. As a grad student at UC Berkeley, Piff was running an experiment called the “dictator test,” in which participants can choose to share a portion of a small cash gift with a stranger. He was expecting to find some connection between specific personality traits—such as empathy, emotional intelligence, and religiosity—and altruistic behavior.

Unfortunately, the experiment was a bust—subjects’ willingness to share didn’t seem to line up with any of the personality traits he was testing. On a hunch, Piff tried a second run through the data, this time plotting subjects’ generosity against their socioeconomic status.

A provocative conclusion leapt off the page: as income went up, the propensity to help others went down. In other words, wealth—in this experiment at least—seemed to make subjects less concerned with the plight of their neighbor.

Since that day in 2006, Piff and his colleagues have explored this dynamic in a variety of contexts, from traffic patterns to board games. All the results have fallen in line with the same broad trend: a sense of privilege over others seems to be associated with a reduced capacity for empathy.

The political implications of this work has insured plenty of attention. Piff’s been on the cover of New York magazine, given a TED talk that has garnered over 3 million views, and been approached by publishers eager for a popularized version of his conclusions. (That book, he says, is “coming along.”)

For those on the left end of the political spectrum, Piff’s findings confirmed their worst fears about the moral bankruptcy of the robber barons. For those on the right, it was yet another plot cooked up by liberal academics (one internet commenter referred, memorably, to “university moochers, who never had a real job and live off the public dole”).

A more careful look, however, shows the work to be less a rebuke to any particular social class than a revelation about habits of mind common to all of us.

Clean-cut and boyish, the 35-year-old Piff is hardly central casting’s idea of a Molotov-chucking class warrior. During a recent campus visit, he greeted a reporter in a short-sleeved button-down shirt and crisp khakis, the Mao cap and Che Guevara beard conspicuous by their absence.

He characterizes his background as “comfortably middle-class.” He lived in Seattle till the age of four, then moved with his family to Haifa, Israel, where his father worked as an archivist and his mother a translator for the Baha’I faith.

When it came time to shop for colleges, he was attracted to Reed for its reputation for whip-smart, burn-the-midnight-oil rigor.

“That’s not the kind of student I was in high school,” he laughs, “but I was attracted to that.” One suspects he got serious soon thereafter—underneath the relaxed demeanor and self-deprecating jibes, there’s a certain intensity that suggests that you want him on your team at the interdepartmental softball tournament.

A fascination with the problem of free will led him to a class with Prof. Allen Neuringer [psychology 1970-2008] on Functional Variability of Behavior, which dealt with the psychological bases of free will.

“My hand shot up to ask a question; something like, ‘How can an action we take willingly not be a choice?’ and Neuringer said, ‘Well, did you choose to raise your hand just now?’” Piff recalls. “It blew my mind, the way you could take these big ideas and make them real.”

He credits Reed’s focus on teaching over publication grubbing for the experience. “That [class] is something that would never happen at a big research university,” says Piff, “where a professor can take a specific interest they’re passionate about and drill down and make a class out of it.”

Today, Piff is pursuing his own passions, as an assistant professor at UC Irvine. He has no doubts about the impact of his undergrad experience on his future career. “Reed changed my life,” he says. “It’s a very special place.”

Piff’s most famous experiment is also the one that most clearly shows his work to be more nuanced than the class-war cudgel it seems on first blush.

In this test, pairs of subjects flipped a coin before playing a round of Monopoly. The winner of the coin toss got certain perks—they began the game with twice as much money, got to roll two dice to the loser’s one, and collected twice as much money each time they passed go.

Watching video of this experiment is eye-opening: soon the “rich” player begins showing more dominant behavior—physically taking up more space, barking orders rather than making requests, even eating more pretzels from the bowl provided by the researchers.

After the game, the “rich” players were asked why they won. They tended to cite factors like their own good judgment and strategic play rather than the obvious material advantage with which they’d started the game. Born on third base, they thought they’d hit a triple.

It seems that the context of the situation—whether a person feels advantaged relative to another, regardless of the actual contents of their bank accounts—lies at the root of this lack of compassion.

The good news is that, in addition to making poverty-stricken sophomores behave like Andrew Carnegie with a bad hangover, Piff has also run experiments in which well-heeled participants can be induced to dial back their indifference. One such study showed that viewing a 46-second video on child poverty made wealthy subjects just as compassionate as their blue-collar counterparts.

“Wealth buys us space from other people,” say Piff. When we isolate ourselves from those less fortunate, we run the risk of descending into callous self-absorption. Paying more attention to the full breadth of humanity can actually make us more humane.

His advice? “Talk to somebody you wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. Get out of your comfort zone.” The world might be a better place, it seems, if we all took the bus every once in a while.

Watch an entertaining PBS NewsHour video of Paul Piff’s subjects playing Monopoly.

– Author info: Marty Smith, aka Dr. Know, is a columnist for Willamette Week

Tags: Research, Alumni