The "rich selfish"

Publish date 06-08-2022

by Pierluigi Conzo

Envy is an ugly beast, they say. But what do people of the rich think in general? Are they in a comfortable position because they have behaved in a more selfish way in their life? In other words, how pervasive is the idea of ​​the "rich selfish" in the world and with what characteristics of the related society? To answer these questions we think a recent scientific study, published in a very prestigious journal: PNAS.

The study focuses on people's beliefs about the rich, rather than analyzing how much the rich actually behave (or are more) selfish. Digging into these beliefs is important, as they could affect how well people are willing to tolerate inequality and redistribution in society. Indeed, some studies suggest that people who view the rich as selfish are more likely to incur the taxation of higher incomes. Furthermore, a sample of people from 38 countries shows that people have conflicting stereotypes about the rich, suggesting that the rich are often seen as cold and competent. It has also been shown that there is a close association between a cold personality and selfishness, and, therefore, existing global evidence suggests that people would tend to consider the rich more selfish than the poor.

In this study, by collecting large-scale data from 60 countries (via nationally representative samples), the authors test what they call the "rich-selfish inequality hypothesis", i.e. whether people they believe that selfish behavior among the rich is a source of inequality. In addition, the relationship between people's belief in rich-selfish inequality and how willing they are to tolerate it is analyzed. In other words, are people who believe in the idea of ​​the "selfish rich" even more likely to consider inequality in their country as unfair and to be more in favor of redistribution?

The results, in general, show strong support for the hypothesis of rich-selfish inequality at the global level, but also substantial variation between and within countries. The strongest support for this hypothesis is found in South America, Southern Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, while there is less support for this idea in North America, Northern Europe and Australia. Furthermore, 49 countries on average agree with the “rich selfish” hypothesis, while only 11 countries on average have a response against it. Only 7 countries strongly disagree. The hypothesis finds most support in India and Pakistan, with about 60% of respondents strongly agreeing, and the least support in the United States and Canada, with the majority disagree. Italy is slightly above the average (high values ​​represent greater support for the hypothesis), with a score similar to that of China, Vietnam, Colombia and Iran.

Believing the idea of ​​the "rich selfish" also seems to be correlated with the level of corruption and people's position in the distribution of income. Support for the hypothesis tends to grow as the degree of corruption, the size of the underground economy and the presence of organized crime in the country increase. This result is indicative of the fact that respondents view, in part, the wealthy as selfish enough to break the law for their own gain. In support of this interpretation, the authors show that the belief in the “rich selfish” hypothesis is associated with the idea that the rich are richer than the poor because they have been more involved in illicit actions. Furthermore, the authors show that there is less support for the hypothesis among the wealthiest and most educated people and more support among males and the elderly. These beliefs strongly predict the acceptance of people's inequality and support for redistribution. People who believe in the “selfish rich” hypothesis are more likely to view inequality as unfair and argue that the government should reduce inequality in their country. This is an important finding, as people's views on the “rich selfish” hypothesis can play an important role in shaping how societies around the world deal with inequality.

Perluigi Conzo
NP April 2022

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