“Americans have so far put up with inequality because they felt they could change their status. They didn’t mind others being rich, as long as they had a path to move up as well. The American Dream is all about social mobility in a sense – the idea that anyone can make it.” – Fareed Zakaria.

Paul Piff studies how social hierarchy, inequality and emotions shape relations between individuals and groups. By recruiting Berkley students into his lab, Paul revealed what a rigged game of Monopoly can change one’s perception of self and the other player.

The game was rigged because by randomly throwing the dice, one player was awarded with a lot of privileges. He was given twice as much money to begin with, more opportunities to move around the board, and when he passed ‘GO’, he collected twice as much salary. Hidden cameras captured the changes of the rich players over the course of the 15-minute game time.

After a little while, the rich players moved around the board louder as a way of showing off his dominance. They ate more pretzels from the bowl placed at the side of the table. Over time, they became rude to the poor player. The most interesting discovery was when interviewed about their experiences of the game, the rich players bragged about their inevitable win, such as how buying the different properties got them to where they were. They became less attuned to the reality and all the clues that they were awarded the upper hand deliberately.

Another study showed that poor people with an annual income of $25K or less gave 44% more (of the $10 they received) to total strangers than the rich with annual income of $150K or above.
Piff and his team went on to study the correlation between the expensiveness of the car and the driver’s likelihood to break the law. They placed a confederate at the crossroad to go across the street. According to the California law, vehicles have to wait for pedestrians at the cross to pass. It turned out nobody in the least expensive car category broke the law. On the other hand, 50% of the expensive car drivers didn’t wait for the confederate.

Dozens of research with thousands of participants have demonstrated that as individuals’ wealth grows, their feelings of compassionate and empathy go down, while feelings of entitlement and the ideology of self-interest increase. Some would pursue that self-interest at the detriment of the interest of others.

Economic inequality has always existed, but in the last 20 years, the difference has reached a critical level. Now 20% of the population own 90% of the wealth in this nation. This phenomenon should be concerning to all strata of the society, not just the poor or the middle class that finds the American dream increasingly unattainable. As economic inequality goes up, social mobility, social trust, life expectancy, educational performance, and physical health go down. At the same time, obesity, abuse of drugs, teenage births, violence go up.

Like the privileged players of the monopoly game, people who are born rich may conveniently attribute their success to what they do rather than who they are, and develop a shallow view of the people around them who don’t have access to the influential network, abundant resources and opportunities. This is why I admire Bill Gate, a self-made billionaire who is devoting his life to charitable cause and taking on the hard problems of the world. He has been joined by 100 wealthiest individuals who have pledged half of their wealth to help the poor all over the world and restore the American dream here at home.

Humans are born with the innate emotions of compassion and empathy. Money may turn people selfish, deceiving them with the illusion that greed is good and the pursuit of self-interest is favorable. However research has proven that this tendency can be reversed. By showing subjects a 46-second video about childhood poverty, rich individuals became just as generous with their time and wallet as the poor to offer help.

We can’t solve the economic inequality social issue in one day. But at the individual level, being aware that almost half of the world – over three billion people – live on less than $2.5 a day and 1 billion children are living in poverty should motivate us to give a little more to help those who are less fortunate and privileged than we are. When money is shared, it brings the best out of the human nature.