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 favour. 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
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 $US100 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.