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The Psychological Need the Wealthy Can’t Fulfill

And why you can expect more off-color and out-of-touch commentary like Tom Perkins’ op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that warned of a “Progressive Kristallnacht.”
(Photo: jesadaphorn/Shutterstock)

(Photo: jesadaphorn/Shutterstock)

Tom Perkins’ curious decision to publicly air his concern that the wealthy are doomed to suffer a “Progressive Kristallnacht” quickly generated the requisite amount of outrage. But the most noteworthy thing about the kerfuffle might be that it wasn't that shocking. It was just another humdrum attempt by a right-leaning elite to seize the moral high ground in the eyes of the public (albeit less clever than coining the term “job creator”).

Why do rich men keep revealing themselves to be inept at using the English language to communicate their ideas—however outrageous? Attempts to explain their zealous defenses of the one-percent generally involve phrases like “limited view of reality” or “social bubble,” but perhaps the most interesting explanation comes from psychological research on the theory of needs-based reconciliation.

The theory, which was first laid out by Tel Aviv University psychologists Nurit Shnabel and Arie Nadler in a 2008 paper (PDF) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, seeks to explain what motivates reconciliation between perpetrators and victims. The theory posits that perpetrators and victims each desires a different basic psychological need—perpetrators want social acceptance, victims to feel empowered—and reconciliation will be most likely when each is fulfilled.

For the wealthy, stagnating middle-class wages have led to a relative increase in the degree to which they view members of the poor and middle class as victims.

To test the theory, Shnabel and Nadler created a perpetrator-victim scenario in which participants were told they would be taking part in a task designed to evaluate their creative talent. Participants were assigned to write sample advertising slogans or judge slogans written by others, and both groups were told that they would be rewarded for doing well.

One group of judges was instructed to be strict rather than lenient, and these judges were later informed that the writer they judged failed the test due to their harsh judgments. This created a situation where harsh judgments established the judges as perpetrators and the writers as victims. Participants then completed a series of survey items on their psychological and emotional needs. Shnabel and Nadler found that victims indicated a greater need for power, while perpetrators expressed more concern about their moral image and indicated a greater need for social acceptance.

A second experiment tested how alleviating those psychological deficits would influence the propensity for reconciliation. This time, participants received fake feedback from their partner on their competence and agreeableness after the writing sample was judged. A high competence rating was intended to increase a sense of power, while a high agreeableness was intended to increase a sense of social acceptance. After receiving the feedback, participants reported their opinion of their partner and their willingness to work with them in the future.

As predicted, perpetrators expressed a greater willingness to work with their partners in the future when they received feedback that instilled a sense of social acceptance and repaired their moral image. Victims, on the other hand, expressed a stronger preference for reconciliation when they received feedback that instilled a sense of power.

The influence of empowerment and acceptance has been confirmed and extended in a number of ways. Schnabel and Nadler retested their findings using follow-up experiments in which participants read vignettes about a boss who mistreated an employee and were asked to imagine themselves as one of the two characters. A 2009 study (PDF) led by Shnabel produced the same results among populations of Jews (perpetrators) and Arabs (victims), and Germans (perpetrators) and Jews (victims). And a new study—by Shnabel, Adler, and Yale’s John Dovidio—provides evidence that, in certain scenarios, messages about power and acceptance can increase reconciliation even when they come from third parties.

In terms of hoping to explain what was going on in Tom Perkins' head, the most relevant finding comes from a 2013 study led by German psychologist Birte Siem. Rather than examine the need to feel accepted or empowered in clear perpetrator/victim scenarios, Siem examined those psychological needs in situations of social inequality.

Siem's experimental design involved participants being randomly assigned to one of two teams that were competing to solve the most math problems. One group of participants was told their team won—the high-status group—and another group was told their team lost—the low-status group. In addition, Siem manipulated the legitimacy of each group's status by telling certain participants that one of the teams—always the team that would be declared the winner—would be allowed to use calculators. That created one group that viewed the winner’s high status as illegitimate and another group that viewed it as legitimate. After learning which team won, participants reported on their need for social acceptance and power.

As expected, the high-status group had a higher need for acceptance while the low-status group had a higher need for power, but only when the high-status group was seen as illegitimate. The experiment showed that one group doesn’t have to intentionally harm another group in order to feel an increased need to be socially accepted and seen as morally upstanding. The need can arise simply because a group is viewed as being illegitimately on top of an unequal society.

It's not a stretch to map these findings onto the American social system. In the wake of the financial crisis, members of the poor and middle class have increasingly come to see the wealthy as perpetrators who harmed their economic security and illegitimately cling to high-status positions. They want something that will empower them and make them feel in control of their economic future.

For the wealthy, stagnating middle-class wages have led to a relative increase in the degree to which they view members of the poor and middle class as victims, and though people like Perkins may still view their legitimacy as immaculate, they are well aware of the perception that their status was not earned through honorable means. Thus the rich want to reaffirm their image as morally upstanding by getting assurance that people understand and accept why they have done the things they've done. Sometimes this can lead people like Perkins to say ridiculous things.

If these needs have been around since we hit the bottom of the recession, why haven’t they been met in the last four years? What keeps going wrong?

According to Shnabel and Nadler, a simple way perpetrators can empower victims is by admitting guilt, giving the victims the power to decide on forgiveness. Unfortunately, the financial crisis didn’t produce any apologies. Everybody involved found a way to blame somebody else: Banks, traders, regulators, Fannie and Freddie, insurers, low-income borrowers, Congress. The middle class never got an empowering apology, and the public came to view the wealthy as morally bankrupt. People like Perkins now seem more desperate for acceptance, but that desperation tragically appears to produce rhetoric that makes what they want less likely to occur.

There are ways to empower the middle class that don’t involve an apology, such as enacting policies that provide significant economic relief. But that presents a Catch-22 for conservative elites like Perkins. They desire both social acceptance and the economic and political power that comes from low taxes and a slender safety net. But to get social acceptance they'll have to work to cede some of their power. That seems unlikely to happen, which means the culturally insensitive attempts to seize the moral high ground will probably keep on coming.