The Theory of Upper Class Psychology

The Money-Empathy Continuum

by Charles Brack

Does money make people mean, or do mean people make more money?

Okay scum, here's the way it works, and we are only going to say this once. We destroy governments and crumble infrastructures, diverting tax revenue back into our pockets. We collapse entire financial systems for just a few billion dollars in profit. We destroy unions, and one by one, reduce the compensation rates for all occupations, including the professions, extracting every dollar of savings for ourselves.

We fabricate oil wars, of which we will never fight or die in. Only those Pavlovian idiots dumb enough to believe it whenever they hear the words "freedom", "liberty", and “job creators" will die in these wars. And most importantly, we will make it increasingly difficult for you to reproduce, and eventually skim your genes from the gene pool. We will convert entire ecosystems into profits, and manipulate lower-class ventral-oriented brains into denying global warming  until they are either drowned or cooked medium rare. We are the primary source of genetic drive on the planet, and we not only love money, we hate the little people.

Okay, except for the hating people part, this is a fun oversimplification of the behavior of the upper classes. Even though there is some controversial evidence that the rich are more spiteful, selfish, greedy, egotistical, unempathetic, and unethical, there is, as of yet, no consensus theory of upper class psychology (UCP). Even if such a theory improves our understanding of class warfare and the behavior of political economies, it currently only preoccupies the outer fringes of the liberal wing of psychology.

But we shall start with the very plausible argument that UCP, with all the pitfalls for defining the "upper classes", is really all about genetic drive. It's about selfish genes. The rich, like any successful Darwinian life form, are fundamentally increasing their genetic presence in the gene pool. They execute this assault, both consciously and unconsciously, by elevated reproductive rates and reproductive suppression in the middle and lower classes. Even though they may not be aware of what they are doing, their genes want to succeed, and even worse, want others to fail. These are harsh words, but then again, we are talking about selfish genes, and the genes of the rich, like the genes of their political comrades, the religious conservatives, seem to run hotter.

The Money-Empathy Continuum

Somehow, the human brain has managed to evoke the same physiological responses to both social and monetary stimuli in the same neural pathways. This is an important point with regards to the theory of upper class psychology, because activity in these neural networks are stimulated by both monetary and social stimuli: a sort of money-empathy continuum. Reductions in social stimulation in these networks can be compensated by increases in monetary stimulation, and vice-versa.

In 2006, Vohs et al. published the results of nine social experiments that hint at this underlying process. These experiments tested the social impact of visually introduced play money and a word descrambling task with both monetary and non-monetary priming outcomes. In the play money and money priming descrambling conditions, Vohs noted that the subjects were less likely to ask for help, less likely to help others, and further, reduced the magnitude of help towards others by as much as 50% of the non-monetary control condition. In short, the conceptualization of money led to substantially increased social detachment and an increase in social spacing. Remarkably, money-primed subjects were more likely to seek greater spacing in social contexts.

Does playing Monopoly make you evil? As we have all witnessed the evil that comes from owning both Boardwalk and Park Place, scientists have confirmed it in the laboratory. Just the sight of Monopoly money results in a significant increase in social detachment and significant reductions in helpfulness towards others, and a corresponding increase in the demand for personal space.

There are several theories that might account for this curious opposition of money and kindness. Vohs favors the social detachment hypothesis, in which the conceptualizing of money triggers a sense of "self-sufficiency" that reduces the need to be dependent, and further, to be free of dependents. There seems to be strong evolutionary pressure for this behavior, as the common cross-species behavior of food escape, where a lucky animal acquires something to eat, then immediately attempts to escape before consuming it, so no competitors can steal it. In these cases, social detachment works to increase the food yield to the animal.

However, alternate interpretations are not ruled out by Voh's method, as the process of priming the brain into the conceptualization of quantities of any kind may be inducing this effect, and not just of money. Prior to the Vohs experiments, there was some reason to believe that the impact of money was generally to make the brain antisocial, and this evidence came from first year graduate students in economics. These students of economics were found to be more likely to take advantage of others as free-riders when receiving public goods (Maxwell, 1981). It seems they felt it was much better to receive than to give.

To further substantiate this point, Carter (1991) found that economics majors were more likely to follow a self-interest approach in the Ultimatum game than were students from other majors. More ominously, this finding could be extended to those with business educations, including the king of all corporate executive educations: the MBA. The implication, of course, is that corporate executives making business decisions on such things as layoffs and outsourcing may indeed be more selfish, less empathetic, and less altruistic than the average person.

However, as pointed out by Frank et al. (1993), there were gender issues with Maxwell's result, since economics graduate students were disproportionately male, and males are generally less cooperative in social situations. But the economics students were not off the hook, as Frank also implied that the study of economics led to a loss of prosocial attitudes. It would seem, based on these results, that occupations associated with economics, especially when combined with the lowered male propensity towards empathy, is a socially deadly combination with regards to corporate decision making.

Why does the brain prefer gold over real consumable products?

Money fully activates the brain, and like other types of reward, such as food and water, works directly on the dopamine reward system (Camerer, 2010).  Money is unique in that it constitutes a sort of “standardized common reward” in the brain, as with money, one can purchase virtually all other reward types, and this may be biasing the brain to encode money differently. 

In other words, money has an enhanced reward value relative to real consumable products. This is a rather remarkable assertion, but is implied by the fact that delayed money seems to be discounted less steeply than other directly consumable reward types (Green, 2004). In other words, the future value of a given amount of money, say $1000, is greater than the corresponding future value of $1000 in food. Thus, money seems to maintain an elevated value in the brain relative to other reward types.


The Nebra Sun Disc (1600BC). Discovered in Germany, it is made of bronze and gold leaf for the sun and moon.  Is the human fetish for gold ultimately  based on the orientation to the sun?  Gold has one of the highest reflectiveness ratios of any natural metal, and this characteristic may be facilitative of gold’s role as money, due to the strong human neurological response to the sun.  Are those that desire to be rich more neurologically responsive to light and shiny objects?

But a clue to how money has become organized in the brain leads us to three of the most common forms of money prior to government-backed fiat currency: gold, silver, and copper. All these metals have high reflective coefficients, in that they reflect more light  than ordinary objects (the same is true for gemstones such as diamonds).  Interestingly, metal coins are typically minted in circular disc forms, emulating the appearance of the sun and full moon.


While direct evidence for a human attraction to both light and highly reflective objects is limited, the indirect evidence is strong, and also associated religious episodes and religiosity.  The religious episodes of the founders of Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam all were associated with light:  St. Paul reported a light shining down from heaven, Joseph Smith reported a light shining directly overhead, and Mohammed's vision of the crescent and star were all in upper space (see God, Dopamine, and 3-Dimensional Space. )

Heaven is more often associated with lightness across most religions, while hell is usually a darker place.  This seems to be intimately connected with the brain’s higher reward valuation for light, placing both lightness and darkness among the many things that the brain associates with reward, and the corresponding activation of the dopamine reward system. 


Of course, the other necessary attributes for money are durability and malleability, and the evolution of the adaptation of money in the United States initially involved gold and silver, followed by gold-backed currency, and finally by government mandated fiat currency. As an interesting side note, the political conservatives, less likely to organize into large-scale political organizations such as central governments, are also the most resistant to fiat currency. Precious metals advertising targets conservative talk media more than liberal.


Hemispheric asymmetry, money, and empathy


Although research regarding money and the brain is limited, it supports the social detachment or empathy reduction theory of money.  Acquiring more money appears to generally reduce empathy towards others, and seems to induce a general decline in altruism towards genetic distance. And interestingly, it seems to be asymmetric in hemispheric activation, with the left hemisphere more expressive of the reward value of money, and less of the reward value of social stimuli.


This was noted in 2009 by Spreckelmeyer et al., which found that both males and females demonstrated faster reaction times to monetary over social  rewards, although males had a stronger preference for monetary rewards than did females.  Interestingly, the nucleus accumbens (NA), which forms the main portion of the ventrial striatum and the brain’s dopamine reward system, exhibited a hemispheric asymmetry in activation levels in males.


The left NA had a higher ratio of activation in the monetary versus social reward condition, while the right NA was less responsive in the monetary reward condition, and the ratio of activation to money relative to social rewards was less in the right than in the left NA. 


In females, both the right and left NA were more activated in the social versus monetary reward conditions.  The interesting left-right dichotomy of monetary versus social rewards, which forms the neurological backbone of our proposed money-empathy continuum, was noted by Spreckelmeyer:


This approach revealed stronger activation in response to increasing levels of anticipated monetary reward in men than women in the left putamen. In the SID [social reward] task women showed stronger activation in response to increasing levels of anticipated social rewards than men in the right caudate nucleus….Male participants displayed a wide network of reward-related brain areas sensitive to increasing levels of monetary reward, including anterior cingulum, caudate, amygdala, cuneus and bilateral NAcc, contrasted by only little activation for increasing levels of social reward. In women a wider network of brain areas was sensitive to increasing levels of social reward than in men; importantly, these cortical areas were strongly overlapping with those responsive to monetary incentives.”

Two trends are notable from the results of Spreckelmeyer: the strong adaptation of brain regions associated with the dopamine reward system (putamen, caudate, and NA) to both monetary and social rewards; and, the left brain, more associated with conservatism, is also more associated with activation by monetary versus social rewards.

Further highlighting this dichotomy of the hemispheric processing of money were the results of Goldstein et al. in 2007. Goldstein noted that the left orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) was activated in a graded manner by money: activation levels increased in proportion to the magnitude of the monetary reward.

This is not surprising, as the (OFC) is highly active in the evaluation of rewards and emotionally motivated behaviors (Fuster, 2001). Political orientation seems to be another domain of reward evaluation in the brain, albeit a complex one. But the fact that the OFC is activated by monetary rewards meshes well with other evidence that the OFC, and in particular, the left OFC, is engaged when choices need to be made associated with rewards of different incentive values (Arana et. al, 2003). 

The OFC maintains major reciprocal connections with the temporal lobe and amygdala complex, and is associated with emotionally charged reasoning (Goel, 2003). And the function of the amygdala is particularly interesting with regard to reward evaluation. Arana found that the left amygdala was particularly activated by high-value reward incentives.

Consistent with this theme, Thut et al. (1997) noted that monetary rewards, as compared to verbal reinforcement, preferentially activated the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (note our proposal that the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is more associated with liberalism), the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, the left thalamus, and left midbrain. The only right hemispheric structure that Thut found to activated by monetary reward was in the occipital cortex.

The asymmetric activation of the hemispheres to taxation is one of the more interesting and politically relevant results of social neuroscience.  Harbaugh et al. in Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations (2007). Harbaugh constructed a series of experiments involving voluntary and involuntary charitable contributions (taxation). In the diagram below, we see the activations of several regions of the brain previously discussed as being active in response to monetary rewards: the caudate and nucleus accumbens (in both the left and right hemispheres). 



The expression of altruism in the brain. 
Both voluntary (brown) and involuntary (red) contributions to charity evoked greater activations of key structures involved in reward processing. Interestingly, the brain is experiencing reward during the act of giving, either voluntarily or forced, although the voluntary condition evoked higher responses in the reward system.



And, reflecting more evidence for the theory that the right hemisphere is more liberal, “taxation” evoked greater activations in the right caudate and nucleus accumbens than the left, while there was a slight advantage in the left insula. Of particular significance is the large relative asymmetry in activity in the right nucleus accumbens with charitable giving.

The money-empathy continuum suggests that monetary and social rewards are organized in analogous regions of the brain, and provide compensation for each other in the dopamine reward system. This supports the social detachment theory of money, and the theory of a general decrease in empathy with increases in monetary reward

Creativity and the drive to make money

One of the fundamental issues regarding the true economic value of the rich is if they produce as much as they consume. In general, both the liberals and moderates do not believe this is true, while the conservatives maintain substantially more favorable opinions. This is obviously controversial to measure, since economic behavior is a highly integrated process, with economic contribution usually defined by the income one receives. Are the rich rich because of their gift for facilitating economic output, or are they more along the lines of social parasites?

This, of course, requires a more robust categorization schema for the upper classes.  Basically, economic wealth can be accumulated via the following mechanisms: innovation; deception, theft, and immorality; collusion; inheritance; saving/hoarding; dominance behavior; and, the execution of economies of scale. Obviously, this is not a cohesive or comprehensive list, and not mutually exclusive, as people that become wealthy often employ more than one of the above options. 

Further, it is interesting to note that all these mechanisms, including inheritance, correlate with different psychological traits.  Since there are psychological traits that correlate with the amassing of wealth, it is not unreasonable to assume that some of these are heritable.

Let’s delve deeper into the psychology of making money by taking the case of innovation and creativity, which we typically associate with good capitalism, and a major source of long-term economic growth. 

Creativity and the brain’s propensity to search

Creativity, like love, is hard to define, but for some reason, we all seem to have an idea about what it is. A broad definition of creativity is any unique concept or behavior, which pretty much describes everything we do that is different than before.  But the foundation for modern human creativity can be laid upon the evolution of one of the most phylogenetically ancient of all animal behaviors: search.

If you have ever noticed that while looking for something, and forgetting what you are looking for, you still feel the compulsion to keep searching?  You are not just having a senior moment, but a moment that plays heavily into your creative drive, and ultimately, your economic behavior. And it is all based on the value of being able to move around, which the entire animal kingdom executes with an endless variety of techniques.

The evolution of movement has evolved concurrently with the brain’s propensity to search. A lot of things are happening in the brain that invoke and maintain search. Let’s take the case of a stimulus that triggers our early warning subcortical networks, centered on the amygdala, and invoke the brain to engage in pattern search to categorize the threat or reward salience of the stimulus.  The categorization of the stimulus into an existing pattern is more likely to come from the left hemisphere, and further, tends to  be  rendered unambiguously, and more closely aligned to planning a motor response.  The right hemisphere is more prone to multiple simultaneous categorizations, and less closely associated to the planning of movement to respond.

If both the left and right hemispheres are unable to match an internal pattern to the stimulus, the brain will continue its search, engage a wider neural network, and progressively more obscure associations to that stimulus.  During this time, there can be a considerable conflict between cortical and subcortical networks, with the subcortical networks, centered on the amygdala, pushing for an immediate response, while the higher cortical networks are still searching, trying to associate some pattern set to the stimulus.  If the subcortical networks are able to exert their influence, then the behavior (usually escape or approach) is engaged, and the organism then tends to managing movement, and search is temporarily diminished until the organism becomes stationary.

But search is not only triggered by ambiguous threatening or rewarding stimuli, it is also triggered by novel stimuli in general.  The brain tends to be more activated by novel stimuli than conditioned stimuli, as the brain goes about its business of resolving the reward or threat value of the novel stimulus.  In humans, the neural processes of search, evolving to increase the association of novel stimuli to conditioned stimuli, also function in the absence of novel stimuli.   This process is closely connected to creativity.

Since the brain tends to be more activated by novel stimuli, we tend, over time, to change the music we listen to, the style of clothes we wear, the foods we eat, the shows we watch, our relationships, etc.  Even hemispheric laterality plays into this orientation to new stimuli, as has been proposed by Goldberg et al. (1994). Goldberg noted:  “The right hemisphere is critical for the exploratory processing of novel cognitive situations to which none of the codes or strategies preexisting in the subject’s cognitive repertoire readily applies. The left hemisphere is critical for processing based on preexisting representations and routinized cognitive strategies.”

Given this orientation to novelty, the right hemisphere has naturally been a center of focus for human creativity.  However, the respective contributions of the two hemispheres to creativity is controversial. This confusion is understandable, given the difficulty in defining a consensus model of creativity.  With regards to creativity, the neurocognitive evidence is much less clear, and favors a general bilateral model of contribution to creative thinking.  However, given the domain of the cognitive task, each hemisphere seems to contribute to creative solutions differently. 

There is some evidence that elevated visual artistic and musical ability is related to disruption of portions of the left hemisphere (Drago, 2009; Miller et al. 1996, 1998, 2000; Finkelstein, 1991).  Further, diminished implicit music cognition has been noted to occur with disruption of the right hemisphere (Polk, 1993).  In an interesting creative tool-design task experiment by Kowatari et al. (2009), creativity was directly correlated with the degree of right prefrontal cortical dominance over the left prefrontal cortex among formally trained design experts. In novices, creativity was negatively correlated with activity in the bilateral parietal cortex.  There was no positive correlation with neural activity among novices.

However, with stimuli associated with language, a more bilateral picture of creativity emerges.  Atchley et al. (1999) divided 72 subjects into three different levels of verbal creativity to compare how they responded to a word ambiguity task.  The “high verbal creativity” subjects appeared to maintain both dominant and subordinate meanings of ambiguous words in both the right and left hemispheres (based on a divided visual field test), while the “low creativity” subjects only maintained ambiguity in the right hemisphere (or no ambiguity in either hemisphere).  It appears, in this case, that the more the left hemisphere behaves like the right hemisphere, the higher the rating of verbal creativity.

Similarly, Aziz-Zadeh (2009) noted that solving anagrams recruited the insula and anterior cingulate bilaterally, along with the right prefrontal cortex. Aziz-Zadeh (2012) also noted an interesting hemispheric asymmetry in “creative” versus “control” visuospatial task performance which she interpreted as a leftward hemispheric bias for visual creativity.  This controversial result might be attributed to the nature of the stimuli, which involved constructing a familiar object from other familiar shapes (creative) versus reconstructing an object from unfamiliar shapes (control).  Note that the familiar shape - familiar object construction activated the left hemisphere relative to the right hemisphere, while the unfamiliar shape - familiar object construction activated the right hemisphere. 

With this result, Aziz-Zadeh might be jumping the gun with her “creativity” extrapolation of the left hemisphere, but it highlights the complexities involved in defining creativity and controlling for modality of stimuli, memory, and the natural inclination for associated motor planning activity to accompany even neutral stimuli.  
But overall, the right hemisphere’s orientation for novelty seems to fuel more of the disposition for seeking creative solutions, while both hemispheres participate in executing creativity in varying ways depending on the nature of the task. 

Creativity and political disposition

The modern computer industry is arguably the most innovative in the history of technology.  This is especially true of the software wing of this industry. It is also one of the most liberal of all industries, in terms of the percentage of employees professing to be liberal. When comparing the number of US patents granted between industries such as oil, transportation, construction, and manufacturing, the computer industry has no rival.   This raises the controversial question: are those that drive invention more likely to be liberal?

Many of its major icons, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, have a long history of liberalistic inclinations, mixed in with some distinctly conservative attitudes as associated with their personal business interests. Since our proposal that liberalism is more associated with the right hemisphere, and the right hemisphere is more activated by and attracted to novel stimuli, we have a possible rationale for a liberalism-inventiveness relationship.

However, we must be very careful about such generalizations, since inventiveness crosses many domains of human endeavor, and we do believe that conservatives and liberals have a slightly different emotional orientation towards inanimate versus animate objects.  

But there are a few studies that implicate inventiveness with some distinctly liberal psychological tendencies.  The first is tolerance for ambiguity.  This is one of the most well documented differences between liberals and conservatives, with the liberals scoring higher on every ambiguity measure that has been constructed to date.  But this distinctly liberal attribute has also been associated with innovativeness (Carland et al., 1989), personal creativity (Tegano, 1990), and the ability to produce more ideas (Comadena, 1984).

This brings us to the work of Vinod Goel, and his concept of a lateral transformation (Goel, 1995), something analogous to thinking outside the box. Goel states: "Mental representations that are imprecise, ambiguous, fluid, indeterminate, vague, etc., facilitate lateral transformations. Mental representations that are overly precise and concrete can hinder lateral transformations". The regular reader of this web site will see the connection between cognitive ambiguity and political-religious disposition: the secular liberals are shifted towards ambiguous cognitive styles, while the religious conservatives are shifted towards unambiguous styles.

Goel proposed that the right prefrontal cortex was involved in hypothesis generation, a fundamental creative process, and his subsequent imaging experiments would validate this proposal. When it came to the generation of multiple hypotheses, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was especially prolific. Goel further outlined the mental process of insight, something akin to a subconscious inspiration, like those you wake up with in the morning.  Insights occur after a period of knowledge accumulation, without the concentrated and conscious process of hypothesis generation. The neurology associated with insight was again localized to the right hemisphere, this time to the right temporal lobe and hippocampus.

Overall, the contributions to reasoning by the respective hemispheres were diverse and complementary. Goel summarizes: "The left PFC is more likely engaged when a problem allows for the extrapolation of patterns to reach correct solutions....the right PFC is more likely to be engaged by problems that do not have a single predetermined correct response, but allow the agent to generate multiple strategies".

It would seem that the two hemispheres make differing contributions to intuition, insight, hypothesis generation, and creativity.  This overlaps into capitalistic behavior in general, and even those that seek to amass wealth, that do not invent anything new, are still pushing the limits of their creative boundaries. In other words, capitalistic behavior is a never ending search for reward.

 Capitalism and the brain

Being without a job is an anxious time in one’s life, and one can see the immediate connection between anxiety, search, and creativity.  The process of finding a job can induce many changes in one’s thinking, extending the brain’s own processes of search, including Goel’s lateral transformations, thinking outside the box, and potentially changing one's location and occupation.  It also is a venue for initiating small business, as small business formation seems to correlate positively with the unemployment rate. 

While those in need of a job engage in a continual process of search, there is another segment of the population equally engaged in the process of search, that are not seeking to sell their labor to others.  These are the capitalists.  For as significant an impact as they have on an economy, too little is known about the psychological trends of the capitalists. 

There is some controversial evidence that the capitalists are more extroverted than the general population, more dominant, less risk averse, more competitive, more innovative, more likely to steal ideas, greedier, more corrupt, and less empathetic.  But one thing for sure, they are engaged in a never ending search for opportunities to enhance or maintain their position in the economy.  

The Pirates of Silicon Valley. While Steve Jobs accused Bill Gates of being unimaginative and ripping off other people’s ideas, Jobs himself stole the ideas for GUI from the Palo Alto Research Center. Both men highlight the close connection between capitalism, the drive for innovation, and the theft of ideas

This endless capitalistic search is the greatest vehicle for both social and genetic change the planet has ever seen. While we have briefly discussed the mental processes that facilitate invention, the vast majority of what could be classified as capitalistic behavior does not involve technological innovation.

These behaviors are commonly thought of as the dark side of capitalism, require less creativity and mental effort than invention, are more closely associated with the imitation of existing behaviors, and can include the diverse mechanisms of investment, labor substitution (offshoring), trade, economies of scale, collusion, corruption, deception, immorality, dominance, hoarding, etc.

The cheapness imperative: hoarding, savings, and the brain

Cheap. This behavior is one of the more ubiquitous of all human behaviors, and like creativity, hard to define, but everyone knows it when they see it. For some reason, it can be quite humorous, spawning legions of jokes that are typically waged at certain ethnic groups. When people use cheap as an adjective in referring to a person, it is usually followed by a swear word or ethnic slur. But cheapness is really about energy efficiency, and analogs of cheapness can be found in virtually all species.

Animal analogs of cheapness include hoarding, or the storage of an item, usually related to food. There are several interesting varieties of animal hoarding, which involve varying degrees of neurological performance to execute. One of the more successful methods is called scatter hoarding, which involves the storing items in multiple locations, and a correspondingly greater strain on memory resources. Indeed, hoarding has been documented to correlate with increased hippocampus volume in avian species (Clayton, 1998).

Immediately after the animal invention of the first hoard was the invention of the first theft, and interestingly, there is probably overlap in the neurology adapted to both hoarding and theft. But the survival value of hoarding is substantial in harsh environments with irregular food supplies. Curiously, even in highly social species, hoarding is a very private and personal matter, as most species keep their own private hoards for their sole benefit. There are only a handful of species, such as beavers, that maintain public hoards for the public benefit.

And this brings us to humans, which have adapted hoarding like no other species, and to which the objects of hoarding vary substantially from the very useful food-related objects of animal hoarding. Excessive hoarding, in regards to humans, tends to be associated with some sort of psychopathology, and seems to be related to the reproductive years, as it tends to show up after the onset of puberty. Excessive hoarding is also correlated with various forms of OCD.

But hoarding has been associated to both enhanced emotional attachment to objects (Frost, 1995) and social detachment (Frost, 2000), which is consistent with the social detachment theory of money, as previously discussed. There are also some neurological trends associated with excessive hoarding: it is most closely associated with lesions in the right medial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal pole, and anterior cingulate cortex (Saxena, 2008). While the varieties of excessive hoarding are many, and have diverse causes, it is more likely to be associated with activity in the left hemisphere than the right.

This is consistent with the general monetary-social reward dichotomy of hemispheric function discussed above. In the case of excessive hoarding, the enhanced emotional value of objects versus humans is more likely elevated in the left hemisphere. In other words, the left hemisphere is more likely to express and sustain greater value of objects relative to humans, at least compared to the right hemisphere.

Future rewards, present empathy, and upper class psychology

But this brings us to the related issue of savings, an important economic behavior, and one that has received some interest in the field of neuroeconomics. The propensity to save, rather than consume, has been associated more with activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex. Essentially, it is a choice between current and future rewards, and the psychological phenomenon called temporal discounting.

Temporal discounting is what we do when we estimate the value of a reward in the future. Compared to an immediate reward, the value of a future reward is discounted. For example, people are much more likely to select $1000 today instead of $1000 one year from now. The rate that we discount future rewards varies considerably across the population, and also across one's life cycle. It also varies based on our income and wealth. People that make less income have a higher preference for immediate rewards and a greater discounting rate for future rewards (Green, 2004).

The brain networks associated with the preference for immediate and future rewards are still much debated, however, there appear to be two diverse networks in play: one associated with both immediate and future rewards, or time-independent rewards, and centered in the mesolimbic dopamine neurons; and, one associated with the dorsal cortical networks, such as in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which reduce the value of delayed rewards (Ballard, 2009).

Note that the inhibition of prepotent responses has also been associated with controlling the impulse to consume immediately, and is typically associated with right lateralized neural networks, also associated with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The upper classes are typically associated with higher savings rates and a greater orientation to future rewards. Even if this generalization is applicable to upper class psychology, the relationship of empathy to temporal discounting has not been studied, and we can only guess at what is likely to be a complex relationship.

However, we suspect this correlation between temporal discounting and empathy to generally be inverse, that is, one that tends to value future rewards more, will, on average, reflect less immediate empathy towards others. But it follows the prior arguments associated the with impact of money on empathy, and the generally inverse relationship between hoarding and empathy.

The theory of upper class psychology

While the psychological trends of the upper classes are diverse and difficult to differentiate from the lower classes, one trait seems to stand out: a shift towards physical rewards in the brain's complementary organization of physical versus social rewards. This shift towards physical rewards would naturally follow from the theory that the upper classes drive their genes harder into the gene pool.

This shift towards money in the money-empathy continuum seems to be the single most consistent psychological trait of the upper classes, and can be seen in the ubiquitous behaviors of enhanced social spacing (the upper classes take up more physical space), enhanced threat assessments from outgroups, and the propensity of the upper classes to be more discriminating when it comes to mating.

While the methods that the upper classes achieve and maintain their economic advantages are remarkably diverse, and include both socially positive and negative behaviors such as creativity, high savings rates, corruption, and collusion, increasing one's wealth tends to induce a corresponding deterioration in empathetic responsiveness.

The functioning of economies, which require savings, risk, and investment, are strongly under the influence of the brain's rendering of physical versus social rewards, and their temporal and probabilistic (risk) characteristics. Lower temporal discounting seems to induce greater savings and investment. Lower risk discounting has a similar impact.

The fact that empathy is subjected to the vagaries of the brain's processes for orientation to physical rewards certainly is one of the great stories of human social behavior. It also validates the general sense that the lower classes have about the upper classes: they seem like they have a lower “value” for people.

So watch your boss. Does he seem meaner than the average person? Probably. Are capital gains tax rates rigged to favor the upper classes? Certainly. Are the financial, health care, and energy sectors heavily corrupted and colluded? Obviously. Do the rich seem to wield much more control over the political processes than they should? Indubitably. But we can thank the way the brain has built its complementary organization of social and physical rewards for our suffering.

Okay scum, the fun is over. Now get back to that job we created for you.

Charles Brack
January, 2013

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