I am convinced that there can be luxury in simplicity. —Jil Sander
Let’s play a game this morning. You’re walking down the street with a friend, maybe doing a bit of window shopping. It’s a nice day and you’re enjoying looking at the window displays of luxury brands even though you don’t have the money to actually shop there. A young woman on crutches approaches from the opposite direction and just before she gets to you she stumbles and drops the bags she’s carrying, spilling their contents on the sidewalk. What do you do next?
Sitting at home, looking at this on your phone or tablet, it’s easy to say we would rush over and help the young woman. After all, it’s just the polite thing to do. One would have to be callous to just stand there or keep walking. Who would do such a thing?
But when Paris Descartes University and University of Southern Brittany teamed up to actually test shoppers reactions, the results were not favorable. As it turns out, just the presence of luxury brands is enough to change how people react to someone in need. Whether those people actually shop in the luxury stores doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. Being around retail shops for names like Prada, Chanel, and Dior causes us to be less kind, less helpful, and less charitable. Only 35% of luxury shoppers offered any kind of aid or assistance to the person in need. By contrast, when the same test was performed in an area void of luxury retailers, 77.5% of shoppers responded in a positive manner and helped.
I Gave At The Office
There are many reasons for why luxury shoppers might be shy about helping. I don’t have time to go into all of them, but one of the primary reasons is that people who have money typically manage their money, or have someone do it for them. When it comes to charity, donations are made at scheduled periods to accommodate both cash flow and tax issues. These people often give millions of dollars annually. As a result, they tend to be of the opinion that they’ve already given back to society, substantially. They don’t need to do any more.
Paired with this is the sad reality is that those who have large amounts of money are constantly being asked to donate more. They’re aware of myriad scams and con games that would quickly drain their bank accounts if given the opportunity. Those who have been stung by such fraud are justifiably cautious. Even a simple act of stooping down to help someone with their packages puts them at risk of theft or kidnapping. They are cautious for a reason.
Does this justify them not helping someone in need? In some cases, perhaps so. How does one observe such an event, especially on a busy Parisian street, and know whether or not the need is real or an act? If someone is out without a security detail, they may already feel significantly at risk. Such events are exactly the type of thing security experts warn their clients to avoid. So maybe we give some of them a little slack.
Faking The Luxury Thing
One of the most interesting aspects of the study is that the mere presence of a luxury shop is all it took to change people’s reactions. When the super-rich reacts negatively, we’re really not all that surprised. When average non-rich people react this way, though, we’re a little more surprised. Why would their behavior change based on what they’re near?
Blame the credit card. While the number of millionaires is legitimately increasing, so are the number of people who want to act and shop as though they’re richer than they are. Their lives are fueled by an array of credit cards with floating balances. Their debt is high. These people are playing a game of public deception. They want everyone to see them as something they’re not. One most often sees them window shopping at the big-name stores, but then making their actual purchases at the outlets.
Should we expect any different behavior from these people, really? If they’re already living fictional lives based on incredible debt, then we shouldn’t be too terribly surprised when they follow through by acting more snobby in the presence of someone in need. The difference is that their behavior isn’t fueled by security concerns. They are just being assholes because they think that’s how rich people are supposed to act.
A Lack Of Empathy
Researchers theorize that the presence of luxury, reminders of conspicuous consumption, causes people to be less empathetic. Those who shop in and around luxury stores actually consider themselves better than others around them. That feeling of superiority changes how one views people in need. The assumption made is that anyone in need must be of a lower social class or otherwise they wouldn’t be in need.
That lack of empathy is something we see growing across what we would previously have considered upper middle class. As socio-economic strata flatten out, those who perceive themselves to be at the upper end of the ladder look for more visible ways to separate themselves from those they consider to be lower. These people can actually be mean in how they deal with other people, and especially those who ask them for any kind of assistance. They are completely lacking in empathy, even though they’re not all that different from the people around them.
A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way
Even in this less-than-friendly climate, there are still those who do help, who do have a touch of compassion. People in this study were not asked for money or any kind of contribution that might put them at any actual risk. Some were asked to simply watch a person in a wheelchair while the other person retrieved packages. The young women asked some if they could borrow a cell phone to make an emergency call. When removed from the obvious presence of luxury, people responded with overwhelming kindness.
These results make for some interesting correlations. Do money and/or luxury make us worse people? Do we really think that wearing a luxury label makes us better than our fellow humans? Are we really good people at heart who are too easily swayed? Hopefully, this study opens the door for more. If luxury brands are going to affect how we interact with people to such a strong degree, we need to understand more about the causal factors and how they might be addressed. The last thing our world needs is to encourage any greater absence of empathy.
Meanwhile, if we want to shop around nice people, perhaps we’d best stick to shopping at Target.