Demonize and dehumanize, Part II
American society is designed to enable and empower monsters
Psychology can teach important lessons. For instance, higher-income people are more likely to be deceptive when it will benefit them, while poor people are more likely to lie when it will benefit others.1 What does this say about our species. Derek Rucker, a marketing professor, suggests an answer:
“Why does this happen?” Rucker asks. “Those high is social class, by definition, have more wealth and resources. They feel more empowered, and this psychological sense of empowerment leads them down the path of cheating to help themselves. Those who are low in social class do not feel empowered. They feel more communal and more dependent on others, which produces a willingness to help others, even when it involves behaving unethically.”
Let’s break that down further. Obscene wealth breeds certain mental patterns that result in clusters of common behavior by those who are super-wealthy. The ultra-wealthy (and powerful) often become obssessed with the accrual of more and more resources.2 A growing body of research shows that, beyond a certain wealth threshold (around 100K/year income) happiness and contentment plateau. Yet surveys of the ultra-wealthy indicate that their focus is not on being happy. Rather, they tend to focus on resource and power hoarding in the form of gaining more money.
The data are stark and compelling. The richest 400 families in the United States own financial assets that exceed the wealth of the bottom 60% of all American households combined. U.S. billionaires pay taxes at a lower effective rate than working class families. The CEOs of S&P 500 companies, averaging over $14 million in annual compensation, make roughly as much in a single day as their median employee earns in an entire year. At the same time, research shows that such extreme inequality between rich and poor is a driving force behind many of society’s most profound and corrosive ills.3
As I pointed out in Part I of this essay, wealth disparity worldwide is obscene. By any ethical or moral compass, the status quo is unacceptable. Bernie Sanders is right: billionaires shouldn’t exist.
The rich tend to be afflicated with “dark triad” traits. So do politicians. The “dark triad” is a description of what happens to human personality when narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism meet at an intersection in the human brain.4 The result is, generally speaking, humans who have antisocial and criminal tendencies. Emerging research suggest that those afflicated with Dark Triad traits are good at being bad in positions of power. For the purposes of this essay, let’s summarize: these people seek positions of power despite the fact that they are the last people who should be allowed to drive systems of power. They are cruel, ruthless, bullies, and fundamentally willing and able to be dishonest regardless of consequences. They tend to be emotionally detached from the consequences of their decisions, especially when it comes to others.
I suggest that our cultural, social, legal, and institutional frameworks in the United States enable Dark Triad sufferers to wreak pointless suffering upon millions to billions of human beings. What can we do about that?
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Stay tuned for the next part in this essay series, where we continue to unpack why human civilization is so bad at taking care of billions of its own, and what to do about it.