Do Americans today live in a plutocracy ruled by self-centered jerks? One astute reader of the latest academic research on narcissism seems to have come to that conclusion...and
for good reason.
The new academic research on narcissism — and other troubling behaviors — is subjecting people of privilege to the same sort of intense psychological scrutiny that scholars, a generation ago, only applied to poor people.
The impact of privilege has now become a fitting topic for academic investigation. We’re inching ever closer to a much fuller understanding of the price we all pay — individually and collectively — when we let wealth and income concentrate in the pockets of a precious few.
Two studies released last week confirmed what most of us already knew: the ultra-wealthy tend to be narcissistic and have a greater sense of entitlement than the rest of us, and Congress only pays attention to their interests. Both studies are consistent with earlier research.
In the first study, published in the current Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Paul Piff of UC Berkeley conducted five experiments which demonstrated that “higher social class is associated with increased entitlement and narcissism.”
Piff looked at how participants scored on a standard scale of “psychological entitlement,” and found that those of a high social class — based on income levels, education and occupational prestige — were more likely to say “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than others,” while people further down the social ladder were likelier to respond, “I do not necessarily deserve special treatment.”
In an earlier study, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Piff and four researchers from the University of Toronto conducted a series of experiments which found that “upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.” This included being more likely to “display unethical decision-making,” steal, lie during a negotiation and cheat in order to win a contest.
Berkeley’s Piff sees today's much more rampant narcissism as a function of class. His basic hypothesis — that privilege leaves upper-class individuals “more prone to feelings of entitlement and narcissistic tendencies” — reflects a growing body of social science research.
Social class, this research suggests, has a powerful impact on our personalities. The disadvantaged in deeply divided societies come to depend on mutual-aid relationships. They tend to become “more interdependent and other-focused.”
Upper-class individuals, on the other hand, have more “control over their lives” and a “reduced exposure to external influences,” a set of life experiences that promotes a “greater independence” from others and more of a “self-focus.”
The greater the privilege, the more intense this self-focus can become. The privileged can begin feeling fully and eminently entitled to their advantages, a sense of entitlement that can slip into narcissism.
In his new research, Berkeley's Piff ran five distinct studies to test this notion that narcissistic behaviors thrive amid privilege and “relative advantage.” The findings from these fascinating studies — one involved watching to see which people, before a photo shoot, tend to preen in front of mirrors — all link higher social class with feelings of entitlement and a narcissistic take on the world.
Piff’s new paper also hints at the next direction his research may take. Future studies, he notes, ought to explore how the “associations between social class, entitlement, and narcissism may be curtailed in societies with more egalitarian distributions” of income and wealth.
So it's not poor people living on food stamps who feel entitled...it's the very rich.