Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Rich Play by Different Rules...And Expect You to Let Them Slide

The following op-ed from the NYT sounds SO familiar to those of us who've taught the young scions and scionesses on the college level. Why is it that the children of the "best families" tend to have the worst manners, worst work habits and most raging cases of "me first"? Guess the answer is obvious. They're puffed up with the inflated sense of entitlement from the day they're born with that silver spoon in their gobs.

Can't you make an exception for meeeee? That's a refrain I'm tired of, dahlings. Because usually I've already made the exception just by: (a) letting you enroll in a class you don't have the prereqs for because the head of the department wants you as a major for the sole purpose of sucking up to your parents for donation money later on; (b) not kicking you out of the class when you overshot the "two excused absences only" rule after giving me a sob story about having to attend a "family event" in Newport Beach the week AFTER break; (c) letting you do one more rewrite in hopes of not having to give you an "F," because that is an invitation to a shitstorm that isn't worth risking my job or blood pressure for. on...this guy gets it right:

April 4, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor/NY Times
The Rich Are More Oblivious Than You and Me
Old Lyme, Conn.

THE other day at a Los Angeles race track, a comedian named Eddie Griffin took a meeting with a concrete barrier and left a borrowed bright-red $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo looking like bad origami. Just to be clear, this was a different bright-red $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo from the one a Swedish businessman crumpled up and threw away last year on the Pacific Coast Highway. I mention this only because it’s easy to get confused by the vast and highly repetitious category “Rich and Famous People Acting Like Total Idiots.” Mr. Griffin walked away uninjured, and everybody offered wise counsel about how this wasn’t really such a bad day after all.

So what exactly constitutes a bad day in this rarefied little world? Did the casino owner Steve Wynn cross the mark when he put his elbow through a Picasso he was about to sell for $139 million? Did Mel (“I Own Malibu”) Gibson sense bad-day emanations when he started on a bigoted tirade while seated drunk in the back of a sheriff’s car? And if dumb stuff like this comes so easy to these people, how is it that they’re the ones with all the money?

Modern science has the answer, with a little help from the poet Hilaire Belloc.

Let’s begin with what I call the “Cookie Monster Experiment,” devised to test the hypothesis that power makes people stupid and insensitive — or, as the scientists at the University of California at Berkeley put it, “disinhibited.”

Researchers led by the psychologist Dacher Keltner took groups of three ordinary volunteers and randomly put one of them in charge. Each trio had a half-hour to work through a boring social survey. Then a researcher came in and left a plateful of precisely five cookies. Care to guess which volunteer typically grabbed an extra cookie? The volunteer who had randomly been assigned the power role was also more likely to eat it with his mouth open, spew crumbs on partners and get cookie detritus on his face and on the table.

It reminded the researchers of powerful people they had known in real life. One of them, for instance, had attended meetings with a magazine mogul who ate raw onions and slugged vodka from the bottle, but failed to share these amuse-bouches with his guests. Another had been through an oral exam for his doctorate at which one faculty member not only picked his ear wax, but held it up to dandle lovingly in the light.

As stupid behaviors go, none of this is in a class with slamming somebody else’s Ferrari into a concrete wall. But science advances by tiny steps.

The researchers went on to theorize that getting power causes people to focus so keenly on the potential rewards, like money, sex, public acclaim or an extra chocolate-chip cookie — not necessarily in that order, or frankly, any order at all, but preferably all at once — that they become oblivious to the people around them.

Indeed, the people around them may abet this process, since they are often subordinates intent on keeping the boss happy. So for the boss, it starts to look like a world in which the traffic lights are always green (and damn the pedestrians). Professor Keltner and his fellow researchers describe it as an instance of “approach/inhibition theory” in action: As power increases, it fires up the behavioral approach system and shuts down behavioral inhibition.

And thus the Fast Forward Personality is born and put on the path to the concrete barrier.

The corollary is that as the rich and powerful increasingly focus on potential rewards, powerless types notice the likely costs and become more inhibited. I happen to know the feeling because I once had my own Los Angeles Ferrari experience. It was a bright-red F355 Spider (and with a mere $150,000 sticker price, not exactly top shelf), which I rented for a television documentary about rich people. It came with a $10,000 deductible, and the first time I drove it into a Bel-Air estate, the low-slung front end hit the apron of the driveway with a horrible grating sound that caused my soul to shrink. I proceeded up the driveway at five miles an hour, and everyone in sight turned away thinking, “Rental.”

The bottom line: Without power, people tend to play it safe. Given power, even you and I would soon end up living large and acting like idiots. So pity the rich — and protect yourself. This is where Hilaire Belloc comes in.

He once wrote a poem about a Lord Finchley, who “tried to mend the Electric Light/Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!” Belloc wasn’t tiresomely suggesting that the gentry all deserve a first-hand acquaintance with the third rail, as it were, but merely that they would be smart to depend on hired help. In social psychology terms, disinhibited Fast Forward types need ordinary cautious mortals to remind them that the traffic lights do in fact occasionally turn yellow or even, sometimes, red.

So, Eddie Griffin: next time you borrow a pal’s car, borrow his driver, too. The world will be a safer place for the rest of us.

Richard Conniff is the author of “The Natural History of the Rich.”


Anonymous lucille said...

I can't help wondering if the "leader" was more hungry since he/she did more work? But overall, a resounding yes to the theory. As a grade schooler I endured annual meetings with my scholarship benefactors that I had to skip lunch to attend, and during which they ate their dessert while we charity kids squirmed with hunger. After showing ourselves off like the good little investments we were, we'd trudge miserably back to the classroom where eating was not allowed. I'd arrive home feeling faint and outraged, but also beholden. Ugh.

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank God my child never endured such treatment. She received a scholarship from a private school in Dallas, but the principal referred to the recipients as her "angels." However, she kept secret her angels' names. I am grateful for this.

I didn't want my daughter to know about this scholarship. At the time, I didn't want her wealthy friends to have knowledge of her scholarship.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

I had to take a sociology course one summer...turned out to be on "The Problems of Poverty"...

Ironic, as I was rather poor, and figured I kinda had an inside track on the topic.

I must have been right, as I came out with an A.

But. The doctor's daughter who sat 2 seats away from me, who came to the class draped in jewlry worth more than everything else I owned (or owed)? The last meeting of the class was dedicated to discussing what each of us had learned. The doctor's daughter's responce has stayed with me for 23 years.

"We've spent all this time talking about how hard and bad it is to be poor. I don't get it!! What's so bad about being poor?"

even now, it leaves me speechless.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a child, I hated knowing that my parents were wealthy. I wanted to be like other kids on my block. When friends entered my home, they noticed the plush carpeting, the dresden china figurines, as well as the beautiful drapes and lamps. Although we lived in a small house, my mother had an eye for design. As an artist, she was able to make a dark corner come alive with a vase of fresh-cut flowers or a ceramic candy dish.

As a former teacher, I never blamed selfishness on wealth. To me, there were plenty of hardworking boys and girls who attended private school. But they were the ones who belonged to big families. Those that had to share and cooperate with others. And who had to work at odd jobs throughout the school year in order to earn extra spending money.

As the director of a creative arts learning center, I hired teens each summer as teaching assistants. Being able to think for themselves was a quality that most impressed me when i was looking for workers. If a teenager was independent and tenacious, then I was willing to hire them. If they made their own telephone calls inquiring about the job (instead of their parents calling), then I'd usually grant them an interview.

How do some children become more independent than others? They fend for themselves at an early age. They are curious and determined. They are not lazy. A child or teen exhibiting these qualitiies make excellent
employees, even if they require on-the-job training.

Next time you pass a lemonade stand, try to stop and spend a few pennies. This is an excellent training ground for our future executives or entrepreneurs. And, if the lemonade stand is the child's idea and not his parents, then all the better.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to add something here: Never squeeze a lemon twice.


Thank you.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Lia said...

Wow! True and fascinating.

Also, I hope the book is going well. Do we get to see some excerpts?

1:22 PM  
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