Social Effects of Being Rich

61056391_31343afdc6Today is Tuesday, July 16, 2013.

Researchers in the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that being rich seems to change human behavior, and studies done at other universities are finding similar results.

At UC Berkeley, Paul Piff, who designed several experiments, including quizzes, online games, an in-lab study that included a rigged version of a Monopoly game, and observations in the field – watching cars at a crosswalk, for example – says that when people are made to feel rich (whether they really are or not), their  behavior changes.

At a busy crosswalk, videotape revealed that California motorists, who are required by law to stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk, often failed to do this, and the ones who tended not to stop were motorists who drove luxury cars, such as a BMW, Lexus, or Cadillac.  (I have to say that I would agree with that, having been a pedestrian for much of my life.  Also, as a driver, it has always been obvious to me that people who drive bigger, better cars are often more aggressive on the road.)

People in another experiment that was secretly videotaped were told to wait for a researcher in a windowless room.  There is a big bowl of candy on the table in front of them, and they are told that the candy is for some children in another experiment.  Each participant was asked to tell his income level.  While people were waiting for the researcher to enter the room, many of them stole some candy from the bowl, even though they’d been told it was for some children.  The higher the person’s income, the more candy they stole.

In still another experiment, research subjects were asked to roll a pair of dice and record the outcome.  They were told that if they rolled a certain number they could win a fifty-dollar gift certificate.  The subjects in the highest income bracket were three times more likely to cheat on this experiment than the ones whose incomes were very low.

The rigged game of Monopoly was especially interesting.  One player was given $1000 to start, while the other was given twice that amount.  The rich player was allowed to collect $200 when he passed GO, while the poor player was only allowed to collect $100.  The rich player was given the “Rolls Royce” playing piece and allowed to shake two dice.  If he or she got “doubles,”  (both dice showing the same number face up), the player got to roll again.   The poor player, meanwhile, whose playing piece was the old shoe, was only allowed to roll one die, meaning that he or she never got a chance for an extra turn.

The richer player tends to “take up more space” than the poor one, using larger gestures with his arms.  Richer players tended to help themselves without restraint to the bowl of pretzels that were on the table, and often talked to the other player with their mouths full, even though doing so is clearly impolite.   (I have to laugh, because I know a couple of people who get this way when they are winning at Monopoly.)

It seems that money seems to “dehumanize people.”  In study after study, those who were rich (for real, or temporarily, as in the Monopoly experiment), tended to be less ethical, more selfish, more isolated from others, and less empathetic or compassionate.  Basically, the richer people were better at Looking Out for Number One.

“While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff says, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

The more money you have, the more likely you might be, for example,  to bark at a waitress for not bringing your order promptly because you value your time above hers, or you might walk past a mom struggling to get a stroller up some stairs, rationalizing that getting to your business meeting is much more important than helping a lady get out of the subway.

There are, of course, some very rich people who are not like this, but it’s frighteningly easy to find examples of rich people who are.  Remember Leona Helmsley, the “hotel queen”?  She and her husband owned the Helmsley Palace on Madison Avenue.  The slightest mistake on the part of an employee was grounds for being fired, and Helmsley was known to shout insults and obscenities at employees just before they were terminated.   One of the comments she was famous for was, “We don’t pay taxes.  Only the little people pay taxes.”  While that’s not totally true, Warren Buffet, CEO of Birkshire Hathaway, who is also very rich, has confirmed that he pays less in taxes, on a percentage basis, than his secretary.

Or take Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger for President of the United States in 2012, whose net worth, with his wife, is between $190 million and $250 million.  Romney wanted to get a bunch of  “undecided” people together to talk to them, so he picked out six people with whom to share a meal.  He had been briefed beforehand on the details of the people he would be meeting.  When he walked in, he immediately asked which one of them was a public school teacher, and she identified herself.  He then launched into a spiel about reducing public school funding and instituting private school vouchers.  The teacher had been thinking about some of these issues before the meeting, and she told Romney that she had some suggestions to offer.  His curt reply: “I didn’t ask you a question.”   The comment illustrates the fact that rich people tend to behave as if the rest of us aren’t even there.  Of course, Romney’s comments about the “47 percent” later got him in trouble with a great many people, and that comment, also, was typical of the mindset of the ultra rich.

According to an article in New York magazine online, “the top 20 percent of Americans own about 87 percent of the wealth; the bottom 80 percent splits the rest. Social mobility, never as attainable as imagined, is stagnant. Forty percent of Americans inhabit the same social class as their grandparents, making the United States less socially mobile than Japan or France.”   Everyone would like to be rich. After all, they tend to be thinner, healthier, longer-lived and better educated, and they tend to suffer less from mood swings.  But if our much vaunted social mobility in the United States is turning into a fantasy, then that means those of us who are rich will stay rich, and those of us who are poor will not have as much chance to get ahead as we would like to believe.  The “haves” and the “have nots” without any more middle class.  The difference in the mindset of rich versus poor Americans (and these days, you can lump  together the lower middle class with the working poor and the poverty class) was nowhere more evident than in the presidential race of 2012, where one side wanted to cut spending while the other side wanted to raise taxes – but only on the rich.   The political divide is still as wide as ever, with fallout from the so-called Sequester cutting deeply into the lives and pockets of the poorest among us, and with Congress unable or unwilling to do anything about it except argue and rehash talking points.  😦


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