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A surprising finding: Desire to ‘share the wealth’ may be hardwired in our brains

As a recent survey revealed, Americans tend to significantly underestimate the current level of wealth inequality in the United States. (The gap between the richest and poorest Americans is now bigger than at any time since the late 1920s.)

In addition — and here’s where lawmakers may want to take note — the survey also found that Americans prefer a more equitable distribution of wealth.

This latter finding — that we want to share the wealth — makes sense, given the surprising new discoveries neuroscientists are making about human nature, as science writer Jonah Lehrer points out in an article published earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal.

“We typically see ourselves as selfish creatures, driven by our genes to maximize pleasure,” writes Lehrer. “We don’t like taxes [according to conventional wisdom] because they leave us with less to spend on ourselves. In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun dismantling this view of human behavior. We may not be altruistic angels, but neither are we depraved primates. One of the most surprising findings is that people have a natural aversion to inequality. We tend to prefer a world in which wealth is more evenly distributed, even if it means we have to get by with less.”

Lehrer describes a recent experiment with an interesting finding: When people learned that someone with less money had been given a financial gift, their brains showed increased activity in reward areas (such as the ventral striatum) — more activity, in fact, than when they themselves had received the gift.

“What’s driving this charitable brain response?” Lehrer asks. “The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good — it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better.”

Of course, not even the authors of these kinds of studies are claiming that everybody is as egalitarian as the experiments suggest.

“After all,” writes Lehrer, “the top 1% of earners aren’t exactly lobbying for higher taxes or for large lump-sum payments to those on welfare. … This is probably because the rich believe they deserve their riches. Unlike the subjects in the study [described above], whose wealth was randomly determined, the top earners in America tend to feel that their salaries are just compensation for talent and hard work. Previous experiments, for instance, have demonstrated that making people compete for the initial payout can dramatically diminish their desire for equal outcomes. The end result is that our basic aversion to inequality — the guilt we might feel over having more — is explained away.”

Still, adds Lehrer, “[f]or too long, our political conversation about taxes and wealth has been framed by a set of misguided assumptions. We’ve assumed that people always want to be wealthier than their peers, that higher taxes are an inevitable source of displeasure. But that’s not the case. As the scientists note, culture and context play a decisive role.”

You can read Lehrer’s Wall Street Journal column here. He revisited the topic at his Frontal Cortex blog here.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 11/19/2010 - 01:09 pm.

    On this, I think I’m going to be like the people who deny global warming. I’m going to say that there is no concrete evidence of people wanting to share their wealth, let alone proclaim any such thing. Why, that would be considered a blasphemy in an aggressively capitalist nation like us.

    We abhor socialism or any pristine and selfless welfare-ism of any sort. We may think that we detest greed, but we cannot extricate ourselves from it for all the tea in China! The Health-care Reform Bill controversy is a supreme example of our true nature.

  2. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 11/29/2010 - 11:18 pm.

    After a bit of introspection, I would like to modify my statements in #1, above.

    As is to be expected, there are exceptions to be found in any seemingly iron-clad situation. In this case, I would like to say that in this country, there are indeed a few super-rich individuals doing wonderful, humanitarian work, with investments of not only money but of also time and hands-on efforts. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey come to mind. And there surely may be many others who are doing good deeds quietly and unbeknown to anybody.

    However, the loudest noise comes from (or is instigated by) the establishment that clamors for more tax breaks and undeserved extra perks. The greed and absence of selflessness there is so immense that it clouds and mars any positive belief in any innate goodness of mankind.

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