Psychology studies suggest rising wealth means more jerks in S.F. – SFGate

Psychology studies suggest rising wealth means more jerks in S.F. – SFGate

Psychology studies suggest rising wealth means more jerks in S.F.

  • Pedestrians walk past Tiffany & Co. Jan. 21, 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

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Pedestrians walk past Tiffany & Co. Jan. 21, 2015 in San Francisco, Calif.

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Tom Cebollero, owner of Metric Motors, an independent German car auto shop, works on a vehicle in his shop Jan. 21, 2015 in San Francisco, Calif.

If it seems that San Franciscans are getting more entitled and self-absorbed, a series of psychology studies performed at UC Berkeley indicates there could be a scientific reason: the city’s increasing wealth.

Paul Piff, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at UC Irvine (he moved from UC Berkeley just a few weeks ago), has spent the past decade conducting about 50 studies on how wealthy people and poorer people behave in the same situations.

Again and again, he’s found a common thread: Rich people are more likely to behave unethically even if they get very little benefit.

They’re more likely to take candy from a jar labeled as just for kids, cheat at games and cut off pedestrians in crosswalks. They’re also more likely to say they’d do the same thing when told about somebody who accepts bribes, lies to customers, cheats on an exam or pockets the money when a clerk gives too much change.

“I think what we’re assessing in these studies is a general lack of sensitivity to the needs of other people,” Piff said. “The wealthier you are, the less attuned you are to other people around you.”

Piff speculated that wealthier people don’t have the same sensitivity to others as poor people do because they don’t need to rely on their neighbors and the wider community as much.

Of course, a psychology laboratory is far different from San Francisco itself. But in terms of wealth, our city is extremely fertile ground for study. There are now an estimated 5,460 “superrich” San Franciscans who are worth $30 million or more — up from 4,230 just three years ago.

Home prices soaring

The median home price in San Francisco in the fourth quarter of 2014 was $1.13 million, according to Paragon Real Estate. That’s compared with $208,000 nationwide. Paragon also estimates that there are 38,000 households in the city earning more than $200,000 annually.

All this wealth has proved great for the city’s tax coffers, but it’s also resulted in some complaints — namely that people are ruder, more interested in their smartphones than talking to real people, less interested in charity or politics, and more selfish when behind the wheel.

To find out what some wealthy people thought about Piff’s studies, the local BMW showroom — where else? — on Howard Street seemed like the perfect place. One of Piff’s most interesting studies found that just half the drivers of luxury cars stopped for a pedestrian about to enter a crosswalk, whereas just about all drivers of old beaters stopped.

(The study was conducted at an intersection near the UC Berkeley campus in 2012. It placed a pedestrian on a street corner, ensured the pedestrian made eye contact with the driver and then tracked the estimated value and model of hundreds of cars and what their drivers did.)

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