Does This New Study Explain Why Politicians Don't Listen?


Theoretically, the purpose of democracy is to give the members of a society the ability to choose those who will represent them through an electoral process. This process ought to ensure that those who receive the responsibility of making decisions on the behalf of the public are the best choices available. However, the power that comes along with such a position is often bound up with wealth. This derails the entire process, resulting in a vicious cycle. But while several studies have confirmed antisocial and elitist tendencies among the wealthy and privileged, they also provide hope for improved relations between people from different classes, and between constituents and politicians.

According to a recent study conducted by Paul Piff from the University of California at Berkeley, the accumulation of wealth directly correlates to an inflated sense of self-entitlement and a capacity for narcissism. This idea has been in the zeitgeist for quite awhile now, but to have it scientifically confirmed gives it weight. In particular, it should raise concerns for a society that has traditionally placed so much responsibility in the hands of the wealthy, especially politicians. Piff reports that his study "suggests that as a person’s level of privilege rises, that person becomes increasingly self-focused — in a sense, becoming the center of their own world and worldview."

Five experiments were conducted to confirm this conclusion. The first was a survey administered to wealthy subjects, asking them questions which gauged their understanding of themselves in relation to others. Overwhelmingly, the subjects thought of themselves as more deserving compared to others. For example, most determined that they should have been on the first lifeboat on the Titanic. The second and third experiments were supplemental surveys that supported this initial finding. The fourth experiment found that wealthy subjects were obsessed with their reflection, spending more time on average gazing in the mirror than other subjects.

This finding highlights a key problem of democracy. In the process of seeking fair representation on a public stage, voters ironically elect politicians who cannot truly sympathize with their position because of the power, wealth, and privilege they accrue. Furthermore, those with wealth and prestige are more likely to lie and throw others under the bus, as found in another study conducted by Piff. These socio-economic factors may explain the dissatisfaction voters feel with an elected official over time.

Hope for relations between constituents and politicians lies in the fifth experiment Piff conducted. He found that through exposure to egalitarian ideas and the benefits of egalitarianism, those with wealth can overcome their narcissism and relate with others in a more selfless and constructive manner. For example, when researchers asked wealthy test subjects to think of three benefits to treating others as equals and subsequently gave the subjects more tests to measure their narcissism, the subjects scored significantly lower than previously.

Simply put, if politicians were reminded that their loyalty to constituents was more important than celebrity status, fake smiles, and staunch party affiliation, they would be less caught up with themselves. Furthermore, when politicians do listen to their constituents, they tend to listen to the wealthiest of them, studies show. What lower and middle-class constituents forget is that the power is in their hands because they significantly outnumber the wealthy and their participation ultimately decides the outcome of elections. Just as being reminded of egalitarian ideals prompted wealthy subjects to start thinking of others, constituents must do the same with politicians. Constituents should not have to remind the politicians of their obligations, but someone must force politicians out of the comfort of their narcissistic bubbles.