Archive for Sunday, November 9, 2003

Golden Rule could help with cash struggles

November 9, 2003


My mechanic, Gary, says people are bringing cars to his shop with five things wrong, but they can only afford to fix one of them.

Some people are driving cars without brake pads, he says.

This got me thinking about wage inequity, which has been on my mind a lot lately, and about people at Kansas University who don't make much money.

I've got this whacky-sounding idea for a program where KU people who make a good wage could have money withheld from their paychecks and put into a fund. The fund would provide bonus checks for KU employees who are less well off.

I can see the dollars pouring in right now, can't you?

As I was thinking about this, I came across a piece written by a KU psychology professor, Dan Batson, which appeared in an academic journal, the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

It gave me an idea about how to make a program like this work.

The prospective donors, who would have to make more than the receivers, should be nudged toward putting themselves in the shoes of someone who doesn't make much money.

Batson and eight colleagues did a couple of experiments to figure out whether KU students who imagined themselves in the other guy's shoes would act more morally.

He found out that invoking the Golden Rule -- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- works. But only sometimes.

The upshot of one of his experiments was that even if you have more than another person and are given a chance to share it, self-interest still will guide your decision about whether to do that -- until you're asked to imagine yourself in the other's position.

When people see clearly that they have more than others AND are asked to imagine themselves in the other person's situation, their concern about fairness rises dramatically.

I asked Batson to imagine a group of KU employees making more than, let's say, $45,000 a year. These would be people who don't have a ton of debt or kids they have to send to college, nothing that might let them say, "I can't afford to share my money. I'm not in such good shape myself."

If you wanted to encourage them to contribute to a fund that would help employees making less than $25,000, I asked, would it be better to mention the Golden Rule than not bring it up?

He said, "I think that prediction is correct."

But there are some problems, said Batson, who has researched altruism and fairness for decades.

First, people may want to share resources in principle but then argue they deserve more because ... well ... they work so much harder than someone else.

Second, they may experience their principles as burdensome ought-tos, not desires, Batson says, and just ignore them.

Third, people may agree that the inequality of wealth these days is awful -- but see themselves as being at the short end of the stick. There's always some schmuck making more than you, right?

Even so, the Golden Rule does have a stealthy power about it.

"Persons of privilege," Batson writes, "aware of the potential power of imagining themselves in the place of the less advantaged, may not simply neglect to adopt this perspective.

"They may actively resist it."

That's not lost on people who can't afford new brakes.

Essayist Scott Russell Sanders writes in his book "Hunting for Hope":

"The fact is that our economy has less and less use for more and more people, and most of those discarded people know and bitterly resent this."

What do you do? Here's my program: Open your wallet. Open your heart. Give it up.

Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin's e-mail address is

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