Dissolving Empathy

Increasingly, disvalues appear as the principal output of the economy, and the production of goods and services as the means to prevent being injured by these disvalues.

Ivan Illich, Whole Earth Review 73 (Winter 1991)

“How Much a Dollar Really Cost”

Kendrick Lamar

1) Money is a substitute where human connection fails.

I’ve been tracking research on wealth and bad behavior for years…it confirms a bias of mine (more on that below)…but there’s a matching flip side. Something that surprised me.

An aside in a marketing course pointed me to research: folks that feel socially isolated will pursue a riskier investment strategy. The working hypothesis is that the accumulation of money is being used to compensate for a lack of community and connection.

I guess this makes sense. If you’re on your own then you need a bigger pad.

(An example of the research: Show Me the Honey! Effects of Social Exclusion on Financial Risk-Taking. Here ‘Social Exclusion’ is defined as “being alone, isolated, or ostracized, sometimes with explicit declarations of dislike, but other times not.”)

2) But money reduces human connection

In general, folks with money lack empathy.

Evidence is accumulating that the rich lack empathy and a reasonable sense of social responsibility. I view these findings with the satisfaction of someone whose biases are being confirmed.

From a WaPo opinion piece (with lots of links should you want to follow up):

When it comes to a broad range of vices, the rich outperform everybody else. They are much more likely than the rest of humanity to shoplift and cheat , for example, and they are more apt to be adulterers and to drink a great deal. They are even more likely to take candy that is meant for children. So whatever you think about the moral nastiness of the rich, take that, multiply it by the number of Mercedes and Lexuses that cut you off, and you’re still short of the mark. In fact, those Mercedes and Lexuses are more likely to cut you off than Hondas or Fords: Studies have shown that people who drive expensive cars are more prone to run stop signs and cut off other motorists.

The cornerstone of this anti-social behavior is a reduction of empathy. UC Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner in the HBR writes:

For 25 years, I and other social scientists have documented how feeling powerful can change how ordinary citizens behave — what might be called the banality of the abuses of power. In experiments in which one group of people is randomly assigned to a condition of power, people in the ”powerful” group are prone to two shortcomings: They develop empathy deficits and are less able to read others’ emotions and take others’ perspectives. And they behave in an impulsive fashion — they violate the ethics of the workplace. In one experiment, participants in power took candy from children without blinking an eye.

3) I know a positive feedback loop when I see one

Ok, so, 1) Wealth is a defense against feeling disconnected. 2) Wealth disconnects people. Let’s draw that.

Btw, Gregory Bateson’s term for a positive feedback loop was schismogenesis.

What’s going on? A theory

Lacking the ability to do a formal study, I offer my field notes.

I tend, instinctively, to analyze social situations in terms of information flow. I noticed something in college and extended my theory at work in a variety of relatively flat and more hierarchical organizations.


  1. Learning, as a lived process driven by intrinsic motivation, is disrupted by the extrinsic goals required to make higher education a certification process.
  2. Certification adds a power gradient into relationship of teacher and student.
  3. This in turn causes a partial collapse of the range of likely interactions. Students tend to shape interaction to achieve a desired effect in a power game and teachers have to protect themselves against being gamed…and often block a more idiosyncratic relationship in order to stay ‘fair’. (To point out the obvious: fair isn’t a heuristic value; it’s a gaming value.) The teachers role, however, is what puts them in this position.
  4. To phrase the whole thing in game terms, a rich game is replaced by a game impoverished by a much more limited set of likely moves.


  • Similarly, the information-flow in corporations almost always has a primary or secondary goal of shaping others behavior.
  • I’ve been in corporations best analyzed as continual low-intensity asymmetrical warfare where behavior and information are the weapons of necessity at lower ranks of the hierarchy.
  • Since accurate info is key to effective action, things at the top can become increasingly off base since no one is willing to tell the brass that they’re fucking up.
  • In my opinion, flattening the hierarchy and adopting a culture of challenge has helped recent upstart organizations avoid the distortion of power and been critical to their success.


  • Disparities of wealth create a similar power gradient. The richness of relationships diminish.
  • From the perspective of rich Player A, the actions of Players B shrink to a few stereotyped game moves aimed at getting money and hence the depth of human connection (laughter, shared experience, joint projects, mirroring, etc.) shrinks.
  • It’s hard to keep a soft spot in your heart for the humans when they’re always zooming you, pitching you, or behaving with servility.
  • It’s hard to keep a soft spot in your heart for humans when they’re jumping the line in restaurants, pretending inherited wealth means they’ve actually done something, or dismissing you because you’re wearing a tool belt.

So that’s my pet theory. In an extreme power gradient, social interactions are reduced to stereotypical ‘game moves.’ Empathy erodes. Society decoheres.

Imagine a cohesive flat society. Randomly give some folks blocks of money…enough for them to avoid some of the travails (disease, hunger, whatever) shared by everyone else. Assume a background where wealth is given a high social value and needs to be preserved.

It takes little imagination to see the process lift off. Walls go up. The assumption of common purpose collapses.

Schismogenesis indeed.

Postscript 1 — Wealth, Power, Information, Empathy. Turn Down for What?

Why seek wealth? That might seem like an odd question. Who would choose to have less money? It’s a particularly odd question in a culture that, quite frankly, worships wealth…often literally. (Reverend Ike, what have you done?) Wealth is status. When you’re rich, folks tend to lean your direction.

My view of money? Money is a nutrient in a biological system. All nutrients (food, water, vitamins, meds) have an optimal range. Both too little and too much are toxic though in quite different ways. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty both damage the individual and the social fabric.

In essence, I’m saying that economists’ ‘utility function’ is a Bell curve. It doesn’t level just level off; past a point, more money creates a decay. We could get into details but I’ll save that for another screed. (Here’s a different slant worth reading.)

Postscript 2 — to wealthy readers

Okay…so…you’re rich: driving like a jerk, shop lifting, stealing candy from babies. This does not look good.

If this all makes you uncomfortable, just assume they’re only talking about folks better off than you. (If no one is better off than you, hey, send me money: trust me, I’m not like all the rest:-)

Or comfort yourself by noting the studies are about statistical differences on a trait between groups and don’t lock in the behavior of any particular individual, rich, poor, or in between.

The project remains to create space for authentic relationships and common purpose across class lines. To cohere as a culture, we need to be able to meet as equals on common ground. (Clue: it helps if there’s a safety net.) I don’t think poor people are the ones fucking this up.

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