When it comes to poverty empathy, many self-made rich leave their care factor back on struggle street

A change in fortune can change a person’s worldview: it’s an axiom at the heart of many a fairy tale. Now, new research has investigated how becoming rich may influence wealthy people’s sympathy towards the less fortunate – and the results are somewhat disappointing. 

A research team lead by Hyunjin Koo from the University of California Irvine, US, surveyed more than 1000 individuals who had an annual income of at least $US80,000.

Those who had become rich thought it was easier to improve one’s socioeconomic status than those who were born rich. This translated into a decline in sympathy towards the poor among respondents who had become rich.

“There are all sorts of stories and cultural narratives about the rich, what they’re like and how they behave. Our findings suggest that not all rich people may be the same,” says Koo. “What seems to make a difference is how they got rich.”

The new findings are at odds with widespread cultural beliefs about wealthy people. In an earlier survey study, Koo and colleagues found that people in the US had more positive views of the self-made rich than those who were born rich – and that people who had become rich were expected to be more supportive of the poor.

Read more: Rich feelings: better or worse?

“In the United States, we find that people expect those who became rich to be more sympathetic toward the poor and social welfare than those who were born rich,” Koo explains. “However, the ‘Became Rich’ perceive improving one’s socioeconomic conditions as less difficult relative to the ‘Born Rich’, which predicts less sympathetic attitudes toward the poor and redistribution.”

So, does this mean that becoming upwardly mobile – that is, achieving a higher socioeconomic status – changes our attitudes when it comes to people who are struggling economically?

Another experiment by the same researchers showed that people who were asked to imagine the experience of being upwardly mobile tended to think it was easier to get ahead. And it does sound plausible that people with experience of upward mobility might believe that if they can do it, anyone should be able to.

“Just because someone has been in your shoes doesn’t necessarily mean they care about you,” says Koo. “Overcoming a certain difficulty may, by its very nature, cause people to be less sympathetic toward those experiencing that same difficulty, because they overcame it.”

The researchers caution, however, that it’s not as simple as all newly wealthy people being modern-day versions of Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

“There are likely many wealthy people who do not match the patterns we document, who are sympathetic toward the poor and social welfare,” Koo says. “We are showing basic trends, but there are likely to be many exceptions to the patterns we document.”

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