Feeling Wealthy Can Really Change Who You Are…And Not For the Better

closeup of a Monopoly board
Image by Mike_fleming / CC BY

You’d like to think if you were rich that you would do good things with the money. That you’d become a philanthropist, change the world. That you wouldn’t be one of those ole-timey villain millionaires (villainaires?) sitting atop a giant pile of money like a dragon hoarding a cache of gold coins.

Right?

You’d do the right thing?

I’d like to think so, too. And while there are some people who do become very giving and generous when they build wealth, that progression seems to be far from the norm.

Researchers set out to see if this is really the case and if so to figure out why.

Rich in Money, Poor in Empathy and Scruples

Researchers Keltner and Piff conducted a study in which they had two participants play Monopoly with one another. Using a coin flip, they assigned one of the players the role of “rich player.” This participant got twice as much money, and the rules were adapted so they could move further around the board.

Interestingly, “rich” participants started to clack their game pieces more loudly on the board as they moved through spaces. And once they’d won the rigged game (an easy feat given the significant advantages they were randomly bestowed), they would brag afterwards about how their savvy in the game had led to their win, downplaying the significance of the upper hand they’d been given.

This strange sense of entitlement is very much in keeping with the old adage: “They were born on third base, thinking they’d hit a triple.”

Seeing these findings, the team went on to conduct dozens of other studies that found that when a person’s wealth increases, their compassion and empathy go down and their sense of self-interest increases in a variety of different ways, and found that upper-class people are more likely to:

  • Break driving laws.
  • Make unethical decisions.
  • Steal from other people.
  • Lie while negotiating.
  • Cheat in a competition.
  • Endorse unethical behavior in the workplace.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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