No, I’m not attempting to start a class warfare riot. As the title of this article states, recent studies have shown beyond any doubt how wealth or a feeling of wealth leads people to behave in a more self-interested manner.
Banking Deal: Earn 1.20% APY on an FDIC-insured savings account at Barclays.
Paul K. Piff, a social psychologist post-doctoral scholar in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley, led this research and shared his findings in a recent TED Talk, which you can view below. If you’re not reading this article on Consumerism Commentary, you can watch the video here or at the TED website.
In one of the experiments, the researchers created a rigged two-player game of Monopoly for one hundred pairs of subjects. By virtue of a coin toss, one subject in each pair was chosen to play by an advantaged set of rules, while the other would play by the standard set of rules. These are the privileges afforded the advantaged player by design:
- The advantaged player begins the game with twice as much money.
- The advantaged player collects twice as much bonus money for passing “go.”
- The advantaged player rolls two dice rather than one, as the disadvantaged player rolls.
With hidden cameras, researchers were able to observe the attitudes of the players. The rich players smacked their playing pieces around the board aggressively, consumed more snacks, and celebrated their successes. The aggressive behavior wasn’t limited to their relationship to inanimate objects; the advantaged players acted ruder towards their competitors. One of my favorite quotes from the recorded gamin sessions came from a rich player: “I’m pretty much untouchable at this point.”
The games were limited to only fifteen minutes. Unlike non-rigged Monopoly sessions, these games wouldn’t have lasted much longer than fifteen minutes anyway. When the games were over, the researchers asked the rich players to reflect on their success. The winners attributed success to their skill, completely ignoring the fact that the game was obviously rigged. Their success was, in their opinion, due to the choices they made in buying properties.
Had the coin flip at the outset of the game produced the opposite result, this game-playing skill would have gotten these winners nowhere. Had they started out with half the wealth of their opponents as measured in Monopoly money and were forced to move around the board slowly, they would be in the losing position — most likely blaming the situation on their environment, not their supposed lack of skill.
The video includes additional demonstrations that show how an increase in wealth correlated to decreases in compassion, empathy, and even willingness to obey the law. At the same time, the increase in wealth is correlated to increases in selfishness and narcissism.
From Scientific American’s report on the study:
But why would wealth and status decrease our feelings of compassion for others? After all, it seems more likely that having few resources would lead to selfishness. Piff and his colleagues suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused.
Will taking on those personality traits and attitudes associated with wealth help to bring about financial success? If you start acting greedy, will you be more likely to grow your wealth? Many authors have suggested thinking like one is wealthy in order to become financially successful. When wealth is revered as a goal, those who have achieved it are revered as well. And they’re more than happy to share their insights with the rest of the “average” world listening. You’ll rarely hear any expert advice from the wealthy that touches on luck, circumstance, or privilege; the key to wealth lies in hard work, perseverance, and making smart decisions.
Those great attributes for attaining success don’t work for people who are living in poverty, but they sell a lot of books.
There is virtue in taking responsibility and blame for your circumstances, whether those circumstances are positive or negative. It helps you identify aspects in your life than you can change to improve your situation. There’s a tradition of blaming bad situations on external forces — the economy, your employer, your parents’ skills — while taking responsibility for good situations, just like the research subjects did in the Monopoly experiment. It takes objective analysis to separate yourself from the situation and truly evaluate the forces that played a role in any particular situation.
Taking responsibility for the good and assigning blame for the bad is a variation of a defense mechanism. If good situations are a result of our choices, they can be repeated, and success will continue despite of the world around us. If bad situations are someone else’s fault, there is nothing inherently wrong with us; given the right opportunity, we will succeed, too.
Not every financially independent person displays these negative personality traits, and not every wealthy person cares little about the world around him or her. You can see that in highly-publicized examples of wealthy individuals making selfless choices.
- Bill Gates, the privileged founder of Microsoft, formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle many societal problems around the world.
- Warren Buffett, along with the aforementioned Gates, launched the Giving Pledge in 2010, encouraging some of the world’s richest individuals to give away their wealth to charity.
- Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook donated $1 billion last year, 5% of his total net worth.
Lest the reader believe that this research and other studies by this author pertaining to social class are too critical of the wealthy, Piff does point out when the attitudes of the rich have positive outcomes for them, and for those who adopt the same principles. The wealthy believe, due to their control over their situations, that the quality of their health is in their control. They go to more appointments with doctors and take advantage of preventative medicine, while others who believe they have little control over their health end up in emergency rooms for problems that could have been prevented.
This is a stratification based on wealth, but also based on access to medical professionals and trust of the health industry. The realization that we can control many aspects of our lives results in better health, but also increased wealth — relatively.
The word entitlement is usually used in American society when talking about welfare benefits or other governmental assistance for the poor. It’s often used in a pejorative sense, implying that those who receive these benefits don’t deserve them because they lack the motivation to improve their situation. There is also the implication that wealth redistribution (in that particular direction) is bad for society because it encourages complacency. What the studies about attitudes of the wealthy and the average show is that those with power and money consider themselves entitled.
With a high level of self-efficacy, the wealthy believe they earned their success through hard work. They perceive the poor through that lens, as if that difficult situation is a matter of level of effort, while the poor look through their own lens of opportunity, seeing the wealthy as have been provided advantages by society.
It’s difficult to take a large step back and look at the progression of my life as if I were an outside observer trying to understand an individual. I maintained a low sense of self-efficacy for a while, and a former boss of mine continued to chastise me for it. I wasn’t disadvantaged — in fact, I had a relatively advantaged background, able to explore my passions without completely devastating my finances — but I was not very well-positioned to handle the small amount of money I was earning with great decisions. I was making the most of a bad situation, which could have been much better if I had made a few better choices. I thought I’d be able to pursue a degree in education and a job in non-profit, but I didn’t have the financial grounding to make that possible.
After a few difficult life lessons from experience, I opened my eyes a little bit more and started taking control of my situation. Again, I wasn’t living in poverty. I was smart and marketable to employers. Things were going to get better for me once I put the effort in, but these advantages aren’t available to everyone. The question is whether my approach towards other people has changed in the years following as I drew closer to financial independence. I’d like to think that it hasn’t, but I’m sure I’m not immune to the subconscious changes.
Watch the video above to see how the feeling of wealth can affect an individual’s attitude towards another person. Have you seen evidence of wealth being correlated to meanness? Is selfishness an essential personality trait for attaining wealth?
Updated October 21, 2015 and originally published February 17, 2014.