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The Rich, Social Psychology, And Personal Destiny

(Richard’s off, C.R. writes): The rich are rotten. They’re not like you or me. That’s what the research seems to show.

In the past couple of years, the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at University of California, Berkeley, has been writing about the results of studies about social class, conducted by researchers at the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory (BSI).

Dacher Keltner, Phd, a nationally prominent social psychologist is the co-director of both the GGSC and the BSI, and highly-acclaimed author of the bestseller, Born To Be Good: The Science of A Meaningful Life.

The research he and his team have been doing the past couple of years is eye-catching, hot stuff.

Recently, PsychCentral reported on a few research studies BSI did. The lead researcher was Paul Piff, a graduate student in social and personality psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research areas are social hierarchy, emotion, intergroup relations, and prosocial behavior. Along with Dacher Keltner, he created some unique studies.

I have to admit, I wasn’t familiar with social psychology until it grabbed some headlines the past two years, both the good and the bad (and fraudulent). In 2010 I started reading up (which certainly doesn’t make me an expert, only a blogger with an opinion).

What became readily apparent? Not only can social psychology help us understand society and groups, but it can also offer us insights into ourselves, insight of a very personal nature. As I read more, I began to realize that social psychologists themselves seemed to have powerful personal motivation for what they chose to focus their research on.

The idea that social psychology’s connection to the deeply personal in the life of the researcher was given credence when I emailed Dr. Keltner and asked him how he became interested in studying class. He wrote:

I’ve studied social class, first with Michael Kraus for about 6 years. I began this line of work in part as a continuation of my studies of power and hierarchy, and in part because I grew up in a strange class context – my parents were highly educated, but I grew up in a pretty poor neighborhood – and upon moving through higher education (e.g., PhD at Stanford) was blown away by how powerful class is in shaping human behavior but how little such influences are appreciated.

Rooted in his childhood, Dr. Keltner’s interest in the influence of class has spurred him to do research and write books and articles that make for compelling, even passionate reading.

He and Paul Piff graciously sent me copies of some of the studies they’ve done over the past few years. In general, the studies, which have been cited by numerous media outlets, aim to show that those in a higher “social class” (rich folks) are greedier, more dishonest, and plain less pleasant to be around than those in a lower “social class” (poorer folks).

I think you could hardly choose a more promising premise for a study. It’s especially acceptable now because the absolute mess the economy is in, isn’t far from people’s minds, and they want someone to blame. Many people are ticked off, many are scared.

I belong to the non-rich, yet, despite the entreaties of my Occupy friends, I can’t bring myself to blame greedy Wall Street traders, inhumane CEOs of corporations of any size, or entitled rich people in general—even though I know they exist. That’s because I also know that greedy, inhumane, entitled poor and middle-class people exist, too.

I guess I don’t view “rich people” as villains because I don’t think most of them are out to get me or anyone else and I certainly don’t believe they control my destiny. I find that viewpoint personally limiting, even defeatist.

More important, there just isn’t a set amount of “money” or “stuff” or “power” in the world.

Recently Forbes rich list of the world’s billionaires, came out. The only constant in this list is change (over time, people often hang onto a “top spot” for a few years). All kinds of people, including minorities, make the list each year. That means new wealth is being generated (most of the Americans on the list are “self-made” and didn’t inherit their wealth).

We know the economy can grow or shrink (Basic Economics  or Economic Facts and Fallacies by Thomas Sowell), so it therefore follows (see Forbe’s billionaire list, above) that our “personal economy” can grow or shrink, too. It’s not like there’s this big static money-pie that has to be sliced into portions—there is fluidity and fluctuation influenced by a myriad of factors—the pie shrinks and grows and shrinks and grows (and over time, gets bigger and bigger).

Ask the self-made dotcom billionaires, anyone who runs a successful web site, the creator of Spanx. Ask anyone who just found out the value of their house has plummeted or who lost a job or had to take a second job.

If you forced me to apportion concrete blame for the downturn in the economy, I guess I’d point at least one finger at our public servants on both sides of the aisle. There’s near total corruption, hypocrisy, and yes, greed (think Washington insider-insider trading); earmarks and pork; over-reach and efforts to control the individual squeezing the life out of employers and choking small-business owners; over-spending, failed programs, and so on.

Simply put, our system has been abused and corrupted for personal gain.

If you ask me to assign blame elsewhere, I would definitely hold myself responsible—I think I could have made better career choices. I zigged when I might have, perhaps, zagged. Ah well, such is the life of a freelancer. But even in a tight economy there’s the opportunity for people who work very hard and are talented enough to make entrepreneurial choices (and have flashes of brilliance) to have monetary success.

But if you asked me to give you my opinion as a spiritual and religious person, I say we’ve made a couple wrong turns on both a personal and national level. I feel that in many ways our obsession with the material and the pursuit of the objects of our desire has dampened our connection to the spiritual aspects of life which in part, lie in our relationship with those nearest to us—family.

Money, status-stuff, elitist-stuff and class consciousness, the pursuit of comfort and the constant indulgence of our senses (sometimes in the name of spirituality), on the one hand; the lust for intellectual superiority and self-aggrandizement, power and the desire to control others, and the need for applause and adulation, on the other. That’s the stuff that coarsens our connection with ourselves and our Source.

I strongly agree with an important conclusion of Dr. Keltner’s and Paul Piff’s, which is that if each of us hold dear a moral code that values giving rather than taking, we might actually solve many of our problems. But we differ on how to achieve this.

In fact, I don’t believe we can engineer or legislate values. But I do believe we can legislate the destruction of them.

More soon.

The Rich, Social Psychology, And Personal Destiny

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2019). The Rich, Social Psychology, And Personal Destiny. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Mar 2019
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