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5 Disturbing Psychological Studies on Wealth

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5 Disturbing Psychological Studies on Wealth

Much has been written about the  wealth inequalities faced by western society, not to mention the wealth gap globally. While the wealth of many nations appears to increase, so too does the divide between rich and poor, leaving many question the moral issues surrounding affluence as well as the reasons for such differences in earnings. Regardless of your viewpoint most tend to agree that the world is a pretty harsh place, full of inequalities; social, financial and personal.

Of course, most people are motivated to build a successful and secure career and comfortable earnings, but there’s no doubt that salaries vary dramatically throughout the world. Those at the top want to protect whatever earnings, but that can mean that those at the bottom suffer. Those who can most afford taxes and increased outgoings are rarely subject to them and are also best placed to figure out any incentives or loopholes available to them to hold onto their cash. Does this mean that rich people are greedier than others or that they just have more assets to protect? Does wealth bring out the worst in us?

A couple of years ago Berkeley grad student, Paul Piff, set out to find the answer and his results were interesting, to say the least. We’ve taken a look at the results and come up with five handy warnings for those of you who earn big or who one day aspire to. These are five negative stereotypes about the wealthy that seemed to be verified by the Berkeley studies on wealth and greed – of course, there are variables to be considered and the results should be read with a pinch of objective salt. But here are some handy reminders of the adverse effects of excessive wealth and the darker nature of humankind’s survival of the fittest tendencies. According to Piff,  “These findings have very clear implications for how increased wealth and status in society shapes patterns of ethical behavior, and suggest that the different social values among the haves and the have-nots help drive these tendencies.”

5. Rich People Are Less Empathetic

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The cliché that nice guys always finish last is, in general, used to demonstrate the underhand methods those at the top have employed to get themselves there. This can range from the stereotypical business partnership or co-founder agreement that goes sour, à la The Social Network, to the consumer or client being short changed on the company’s profit. But does that reflect poorly on human nature or only on particular individuals?

In this Berkeley study, the researcher set up a simple experiment using people from a variety of income levels to test how they would handle various situations. One such experiment was a mock job interview: The interviewer knows that the position will be made redundant in a couple of months, and has the option of telling the prospective employee should they so choose. The study found that those with lower incomes were more likely than their wealthier counterparts to tell the applicant that the job would shortly be eliminated.

There are two ways of looking at this result: One, those on a lower income are better able to empathise with the difficulties the candidate would face when their contact was terminated. The second is that those who are richer are prepared to be more selective with their information – at someone else’s expense – effectively turning the interview into a sales process. This demonstrates, arguably, a lack of empathy and a readiness to put personal interests over the interests of the candidate, almost commoditising the candidate. There was no penalty for disclosing this short-term nature of the job offered, so while there was no nice guy finishing last, the richer people felt the need to protect themselves from that risk anyway.

4. Rich People are More Impatient

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We’ve all seen that someone at a bar who flashes their cash and expects better service. Or the well-off person who expresses that mock-shock at having to take public transport or wait in line like every other Joe. In a simple but effective experiment, the Berkeley team decided to test the patience of the well-heeled.

They set up an experiment looking at cars at a pedestrian junction. They watched 426 cars drive past and recorded their interaction with the traffic and passers-by around them: those with flashier cars were less likely to yield to other vehicles or pedestrians crossing the road, while drivers of more modest cars were happy to slow down to let others cross. Of course, cars are for many an elitist or status item and those who own such flash vehicles can still be scraping to get by.  In that sense, what Piff and his team’s experiment reveals is the sense of entitlement around these status symbols rather than around wealth itself. Those who choose to manifest tangible evidence of their money are impatient here, rather than the wealthy across the board.

3. Rich People Cheat and Lie

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This is perhaps the best-known stereotype about the wealthy: the fat cats of the world will lie, cheat and swindle their way to the top and will do anything to hold onto that position.

To illustrate this point, the Berkeley researchers conducted a set of tests involving the ever-persuasive cash prize. In a computer-simulated dice throwing game, contestants were asked to record their own scores – with the highest score landing the player $50. Not a particularly large sum of money, but the wealthier contestants consistently lied on their score cards, even reporting figures that were not possible within the framework of the game. In an interview with Bloomberg, Piff attributed this behaviour to the fact that for the higher earning, $50 was no big deal and so the risks of cheating were low. Not so for those who could really do with the cash.

2. Rich People Believe They’ve Earned All They Have

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In another set of experiments Piff and his team took an even closer look at how humans interact with wealth, using everyone’s favourite nice-guys-finish-last game, Monopoly. A coin toss decided who would be rich and who would be poor in the game. Those who were rich were given twice as much cash to begin playing, twice as much money for passing go, and were allowed roll two dice per turn rather than just one; so the odds were clearly stacked in their favour. However, that’s not how these monopolising fat cats saw the game. They believed they were they better players, and not only that, they gloated as their poorer counterpart struggled to make ends meet. Aside from these alpha-male displays of superiority, the richer winners then began to discuss their strategies after the game, as if they’d been responsible for the win.

As this clever Monopoly experiment demonstrates, once rich people have money- regardless of how they got it- they believe that they’re entitled to it and that they’re truly deserving of it. Even those who are simply the winners of birth and have grown up to inherit wealth, rather than actually working to make a living, believe they deserve their riches. Before we all get too judgemental of those who are lucky enough to be well-off, there is another important point to remember: Monopoly, like the dice test, is just a game. And in Monopoly, there is no value to your cash outside of the game. What this means is that it’s not so much that rich people are greedier, but that we as humans are inclined to believe that we’re entitled to whatever lucky breaks, special treatment or additional advantages come to us.

1. Rich People Really Love Being Rich

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Rich people really love being rich. Seems obvious. But just think about it for a bit longer. In the United States, as in many other western nations, there is a huge amount of discussion around the various tax brackets, both for personal and corporate income. It’s a no-brainer that the more money you have, the easier it is for you to pay your taxes, which is what leads to the argument by some that the well-off should be taxed at a higher rate.

However, when you pair this concept with the proof from the Berkeley experiment that rich people truly believe they deserve their wealth, then you run into a bit of a problem. Rich people don’t want to give away a greater proportion of their income, even though they can better afford to. Not only that, but once you set out on the path of wealth and glory, you need to go a seriously long way before you ever decide that enough is enough. Many wealthy celebrities and businessmen are known for their philanthropic efforts, of course. There are the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gates of the world who manage to amass truly incomprehensible fortunes and decide to do something extraordinary with them, but it seems your personal worth needs to go to truly gargantuan figures if you’re ever going to break the bank with charitable donations. And even then, you may just wind up as another Donald Trump of the world.

So what does all this tell us all about wealth and greed? Well, that it’s not just the top one percent or the very wealthy that have a tendency to shift their moral views in their favour – anyone could be like that given the correct circumstances. While that doesn’t put mankind in the positive, and high-standing moral light we might hope for, look at it this way: Wealth is an equaliser. Given the means, we’d almost all – according to these studies – behave in the same way.

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