Saturday, December 5, 2015

What you always believed about the rich and powerful is really true.

Social psychologists study human behavior but so, of course, does everyone of us. For that reason the results of social psychologists often seem self-evident and not worth the effort of a scientific study. But our own ideas about what human beings do rests on fairly random experiences we have. My own opinions about human behavior often rest on very personal perspectives. Often they are no more than prejudices. I have no really solid evidence for them. The results of the social psychologists, by contrast, are backed up by careful scientific studies and sophisticated statistical analyses of their results.

It is, therefore, really gratifying to find that what I have always believed about the rich and the powerful is not just my own prejudice but is supported by a respectable social psychological research. *

Social psychologists have found that more powerful people tend to think about the world and talk about it in rather abstract terms. That result explains something I had been wondering about for a long time, namely why college presidents and deans, school principals, and politicians tend to talk in abstract clich├ęs which mean very little. People in positions of power promise to "empower" people who are now underdogs. But they never tell us what they're actually going to do which in most cases turns out to be nothing at all. President Bush used to say that "we have freedom" but he was the president who signed the Patriot Act that severely limited the freedom and privacy of citizens. He obviously had not given any thought to what he meant by "freedom." What is Donald Trump promising to do when he tells us that he will America great again?

The powerful tend to feel invulnerable. They do not worry about the consequences of their statements. Some current Republican candidates for the presidency are a fine example of that.

People who are powerful pay less attention to people who are not. They don't pay attention to what their underlings need or want, they're not trying to understand what people with less power are trying to tell them. This explains the ease with which the CEOs of public companies lay off large number of employees. Their own position and the health of their organization on which their position depends is all that they care about. Their employees, the employees’ families, their children and parents count for very little.

The powerful are often contemptuous of the rules. Think of the many illegal or barely legal manipulations of the economy by large banks, large stockbrokers and mortgage companies that brought down the economy in 2008. Our government's assumption that companies "too big to fail" should be given special breaks and that CEOs should be given immunity to some extent justifies the powerful when they act as if the rules did not apply to them.

A slightly scary instance of this was brought to light in a study done at Berkeley, at the University of California, which found that people who drive BMWs or Mercedes are up to four times less likely to stop for pedestrians crossing a crosswalk than people who drive cheaper cars.

In conflicts people who are powerful tend to be inflexible, and domineering. They assume as a matter of course that they are in charge and control how the conflict is to be resolved.

Rich and powerful people are bad news. They are self absorbed and disinterested in the rest of the nation. Whatever happens, they assume that they are the ones who count and should control the situation. They are too good to obey the laws incumbent on the rest of us. Everything is about them and them alone.

If you don't trust the rich and powerful, science supports you in that.

* For the reports on psychological studies see Chapter 2 of Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson, Making Conflict Work (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014).