Rising Wealth May Have Made Americans Less Generous

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Busines man surrounded by falling money, outdoors, portrait
Alamy
By Mandi Woodruff

A UCLA researcher has used Americans' own words against them to show how increasing wealth has made us more individualistic over time.

Using Google's Ngram tool, Patricia Greenfield sifted through more than 1 million books published in the U.S. over the last two centuries to see which kinds of words went in and out of favor. The time period shows a shift in American society from a more rural way of life to a boom in urban populations, which tend to be wealthier and better educated.

Over time, she found words that implied individualism increased in use, while words denoting community and generosity decreased. For example, 'get' has increased in use, while the more generous 'give' took a nose dive over the years. Additionally, "words that would show an individualistic orientation became more frequent," Greenfield told NPR. "Examples of those words were 'individual,' 'self,' 'unique.'"

We punched a few examples into Google's Ngram viewer to see for ourselves:

Give vs. Get
give, get

Charity
ngram

Individual
ngram

Unique
ngram
Of course, just because some words have gone out of style doesn't necessarily prove that wealth can make us greedier. When we looked up the words 'together' and 'community,' we found both have increased in use over the last century.

But other research seems to support Greenfield's take.

"Americans may be more narcissistic now than ever, but narcissism is not evenly distributed across social strata," wrote renown psychologist Paul Pill, in a recent study linking narcissism to wealth. "Higher social class is associated with increased entitlement and narcissism."

In a first-of-its-kind study from the University of Utah and Harvard University, hundreds of participants proved that simply the idea of money could lead them astray.

Furthermore, poor people were found in a series of psychological studies in 2011 to be more generous than the wealthy.

"Upper-class rank perceptions ... trigger a focus away from the context toward the self, prioritizing self-interest," the researchers concluded.

One could argue that in the aggregate, wealthy people are among the largest charitable givers in the country. But when you think about it, "a thousand dollars from a billionaire doesn't mean the same thing as $100 from someone living on the poverty line," Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR.

"In just about every way you can study it, our lower-class individuals volunteer more, they give more of their resources -- they're more generous," he said.

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58 Comments

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betty_brock

It is a proven fact that Republicans give more to charity than Democrats, rich or not. We libs are just stingy.

September 11 2013 at 7:38 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
joness4160

I'm 75 yro, have my own pension that I earned after 26 yrs at same job, have less than minimum ssa($161), work a part time job, pay$348 in hops ins, Bring home $28000 per year , own my own home,car free and clear, tithe volunterr for Meals on wheels, contrinute to that orgination, tithe and live better than a lot of high paid workers, because I prepared for retirement. I'm picky about who I give my money to.

September 11 2013 at 10:38 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
gjohn411

The great bush recession has scared people into holding cash and on the face of it, cutting taxes for the rich while beating the drum of trickle down econimis has never work, never will. Greed rules the american society and the dead beats thrive on government hand outs.

September 11 2013 at 10:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gjohn411's comment
betty_brock

The great Bush recession is nothing compared to what Obama is doing to us.

September 11 2013 at 7:37 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Sonny

All of the uncertainty of where this country is going, is causing people to hold on to larger amounts of cash indefinitely. Can't blame them, when so much Govt control and regulations are the order of the day. If that is what they want...... let them have it. They will deserve what they get!

September 11 2013 at 9:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
smiles41

My rising wealth is none of YOUR business. Americans are no longer "buying" the liberal message of supporting their entitlement programs for those who are unwilling to help themselves get educated and skilled. I will donate how much and to whom my charity dollars will go. I will help someone up who has fallen on hard times but will not be their crutch for eternity.

September 11 2013 at 9:28 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to smiles41's comment
jrb359

Far too many able bodied people choosing not to help themselves but instead waiting for a free government check out of the pockets of hardworking American taxpayers thanks to the Democrats!

September 11 2013 at 9:55 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jrb359's comment
seekingthetruth2_mike

jrb359,......you need to Google:.....Which states have the highest usage of welfare and food stamps? You will see that thanks to the cheap wages in the south it keeps people below the poverty level which leaves more people dependent on government.

September 11 2013 at 10:10 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down
betty_brock

Welfare bums in the South, like everywhere, are Democrats. They know who is buying their vote.

September 11 2013 at 7:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
sandi

its not "we've become greedy" but rather insensitized not a day goes bye without at least 3 requests for donations--the cure is just around the corner, people are hungrier than ever, many of the same spiels been hearing for last 40 yrs. over those 40 yrs have given a 6 fiqure amt and it hasn't helped one bit if anything it has made things worst

September 11 2013 at 9:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
seekingthetruth2_mike

Increasingly, technology is replacing workers in performing routine tasks. And union power has dwindled. The percentage of American workers represented by unions has dropped from 23.3 percent in 1983 to 12.5 percent last year, according to the Labor Department.

The changes have reduced costs for many employers. That is one reason corporate profits hit a record this year as a share of U.S. economic output, even though economic growth is sluggish and unemployment remains at a high 7.2 percent.

America's top earners tend to be highly paid executives or entrepreneurs — the "working rich" — instead of elites who enjoy lives of leisure on inherited wealth, Saez wrote in a report that accompanied the new analysis

September 11 2013 at 9:23 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to seekingthetruth2_mike's comment
seekingthetruth2_mike

You want the middle class to be strong again? Bring back Unions which built the middle class.

September 11 2013 at 9:25 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
ectullis

So why are we sending money to countrys that are our enemies?

September 11 2013 at 8:02 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
gopisstupid2

Bobby Jindal said to the republican party:....We must stop being the party of stupid

September 11 2013 at 7:30 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to gopisstupid2's comment
jrb359

And somebody needs to tell the Democrats to stop using the lame excuse for their incompetence by saying "It's all George Bush's fault!"

September 11 2013 at 9:21 AM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jrb359's comment
seekingthetruth2_mike

Hmmmm,.....if Bush did such a great job with our economy why wasn't he at the RNC last year to boast about his record?

September 11 2013 at 9:28 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down
gjohn411

Bush, an epic failure in American history, is the root of the problem and you know it.

September 11 2013 at 10:13 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down
betty_brock

Wrong. Dems are the party of stupid. You and Obama are proof.

September 11 2013 at 2:52 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
zebra365

The government takes more than 30% of all I earn, including property taxes that are so high that a 30 year mortgage means that by the time I pay off the mortgage, I have paid for the house twice, as well as all needed maintenance.

When the government takes that much from me by force and simply hands it over to others that have positioned themselves to benefit, and returns no more to me than it returns to those so positioned, then to whom should I feel charitable?

This year I finally stopped giving to any organization that helps people who are also eligible for government handouts. So now it is the SPCA and highly rated organizations that help working poor in other countries. I use charitynavigator.org to rate them.

The people who put up the "Do not Feed the Bears" signs don't really want the bears to starve. They put up those signs because they know that feeding the bears CHANGES THEIR BEHAVIOR in a way that is ultimately to the detriment of the bears.

September 11 2013 at 6:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply