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As insane as it sounds, much of my last year has been spent trying to get a crosswalk installed in front of the local public school. Drop-off at the school is a tangle of school buses and cars and with no nearby intersection or crosswalk, kids on foot or bike make their way across the street at their own peril. My suggestion that we offer these children (mine among them) safe passage has fallen on remarkably deaf ears. The city’s police, traffic planning department and local residents deem a crosswalk unnecessary, ugly and inconvenient. Efforts to rally support among other school parents uncovered what many of them consider the root of the problem: French immersion.

This program, recently introduced at the school, draws kids from a wider catchment and typically higher-income families. There’s a perception in the school community that French immersion parents with their busy lives and expensive cars make particularly belligerent drivers. Of course, a Lexus SUV with tinted windows is a fearsome sight if you’re four years old and just had your training wheels taken off. Even so, I didn’t think there was any substance to the claim that rich people drive badly.

In fact, that’s precisely what social psychologist Paul Piff argues. In a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Piff, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, observed several hundred cars passing through a four-way stop and a crosswalk where a pedestrian was waiting. He categorized car-types from one to five, with one being beat-up Hondas and the like and five being luxury models. Put simply, the best cars behaved the worst. At the crosswalk, all the cars from the first category stopped for the pedestrian, versus only half of cars in the fifth category.

Piff is one of a growing number of scientists studying the impact of wealth on social behaviour. The interest comes as income inequality in North America continues to rise with the rich lining their pockets muct faster than any other income group and the most dramatic gains being made by the super-rich. Between 1998 and 2007, the richest percentile of the Canadian population netted a third of all income growth.

Psychologists, economists and neurologists are honing in on what kinds of behaviour contribute to wealth and, in turn, what impact wealth has on behaviour. It’s hard to distinguish chickens from eggs in this field and it’s impossible to “get the 1 per cent into the lab,” as Piff puts it, but he and his colleagues at Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley are designing lab situations and studying real-world phenomena to better understand what wealth does to people.

In a much publicized experiment, Berkeley psychologist Jennifer Stellar put subjects from various socio-economic backgrounds before two videos – one demonstrating how to build a cement wall, the other showing a medical facility where children with cancer are courageously undergoing medical tests. While all viewers reported to have been moved by the second video, those of higher socio-economic status demonstrated significantly less physiological response (empathy typically triggers heartbeat deceleration).

It’s quite contentious to suggest that rich people are unfeeling and Stellar and her colleagues are quick to clarify that richer subjects are not indifferent, just less acutely affected. Neuroscience offers a value-neutral explanation for this: Growing up in poverty or adversity means constantly coping with a certain degree of threat, a state that makes people connect with others. This connection creates heightened awareness of the social environment. Psychologists have found, for instance, that people of lower social-economic status are better readers of subtle facial expressions.

At the same time, wealth affords separation. Rich people live in bigger houses, drive larger cars, take taxis rather than subways, fly in roomy business class seats and cabins, and holiday in exclusive, remote resorts. If they want to get away from the maddening crowds, they certainly can. Some never get near them.

Consumer culture reinforces this exceptionality. Take car ads. As often as not, a pick-up truck ad will show a bunch of them in a parking lot for a country fair with a slogan about family time or belonging. But what high-end sports car markets itself on how well it fits into the flock? The sports car is a means to escape humanity (with the possible exception of a sexy mate) on a ribbon of road cutting through a remote bluff.

There’s nothing inherently bad about such individualism – and in fact, there’s a lot good. Without self-interest, it’s impossible to obtain wealth which undeniably affords better health, greater opportunity and longer lifespan. But the “hidden cost” of wealth, according to Piff and his colleagues, is a social disassociation that can result in ungenerous, selfish and “socially costly” behaviour.

Rich individuals will, of course, take exception to such claims. In a radio interview with Canadian news network CBC, prominent millionaire and television personality Kevin O’Leary dismissed Piff’s work as a “total load of crap.” He claimed that “most wealthy people want to give back,” then went on to cite his own charitable activity as evidence.

Piff rebuts that in the United States, poorer households contribute more to charity than wealthy ones as a percentage of income. And much philanthropy the world over is motivated by the “reputation gain” associated with it. The Greater Good scientists are less interested in grand charitable gestures than small quotidian ones and day-to-day civic behaviour. Among the worst offenders in Piff’s crosswalk study were Toyota Prius drivers who are evidently willing to pay a premium for an environmentally virtuous car – and the status that comes with it – but less willing to apply its brakes for the common man.

It’s impossible to know what proportion of this behaviour can be attributed to dulled empathy and how much to simple pragmatism, given that wealthy people have good lawyers and barely notice the dent a traffic fine puts in their pocket. Perhaps a more relevant question is whether the sense of freedom from social mores brings pleasure.

In the burgeoning field of happiness studies, much has been made of the finding that increased wealth doesn’t invariably increase “subjective well being,” as it’s called. A 2010 study by economist Angus Deaton and Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman determined $75,000 to be the optimal annual income. Up until that level, increased wealth leads to increased happiness. Beyond it, however, happiness levels plateau and even possibly fall off. One explanation for this has been put foreword by University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, who posits the centrality of savouring to happiness. That is, to savour something means it has to be in limited supply. As Dunn and her co-author Michael Norton, a business professor at Harvard University, put it in the forward to their recent book, Happy Money, an astonishing number of people don’t get maximum happiness bang for their buck.

“When people receive money, they have a strong tendency to spend it on stuff for themselves,” Norton explains. “This strategy is wrong at two levels. First, stuff doesn’t make us happy and second, buying for ourselves doesn’t make us happy.”

In their book, Norton and Dunn detail the kinds of investments that actually yield happiness: shortening work commutes, going on trips, giving to charity, spending more time with friends and family and less with television. The common denominator: experiences that bring you together with others. According to happiness researchers, the strongest predictor of human happiness across class and geographic boundaries is solid social relationships.

I once knew a very wealthy retired World Bank banker who lived in a sprawling penthouse in Geneva. Apart from the odd voluntary consulting gig, his life was one of leisure – trips to Milan for an opera, Paris for dinner or Morocco for a week at the beach. Much of his time was spent alone. We lost touch for a while but he recently re-surfaced on Facebook. Apparently, he’s sold his Swiss real estate, given away gobs of money and moved to South America where, judging by the pictures, he’s living closer to the ground, closer to people and happily.

Of course, I have no way of knowing how he behaves at crosswalks.

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