The psychology of wealth

A number of recent studies have suggested that money elicits immorality, but it’s those very studies that fuel misguided – and dangerous – stereotypes, perceptions and social divisions


Money poisons the mind, argue studies splurged across the pages of international media over the past few years. Such studies have resulted in interesting findings – a recent paper published in November in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, for example, found that thinking about money made people less inclined to approve of, and show, emotion in public. The researchers surmised that this could be down to the notion of professionalism associated with finance; great bursts of emotion in the workplace tend to be considered as somewhat inappropriate.

Researchers at both Harvard and the University of Utah meanwhile, found in a 2013 study that exposure to words and images associated with money could lead to unethical behaviour, with money-primed participants more inclined to lie for the sake of economic gain. According to the researchers, “a cost-benefit analysis ensues which focuses on the self to the exclusion of others.” A UC Berkeley study in 2012 monitored two students playing a game of Monopoly and concluded that the player given the most money from the start (and collecting extra when passing Go) acted more aggressively than the poorer participant.

More money, more problems
That potential link between the notion of money and the way we behave is intriguing. It gets precarious, however, when the studies – and moreover the media – suggest that actually having more money has the same effect as thinking about it as a concept.

In some cases the immoral, misogynistic and self-seeking Wolf of Wall Street-style stereotypes probably ring true – but that ‘some’ seems to get awkwardly confused with ‘most’

Psychologist Paul Piff, who led the Monopoly study, didn’t hesitate to make that link. “Putting someone in a role where they’re more privileged and have more power in a game makes them behave like people who actually do have more power, more money, and more status”, quoted him saying. How much of that is grounded in actual reality is questionable, but that didn’t stop it hitting the headlines and fuelling dangerously negative perceptions.

Another study carried out in 2012 by Piff and fellow UC Berkeley researchers took it to a greater extent, arguing that wealthy people were more likely to “lie, cheat, steal, and break the law”, in the words of . The findings sparked wide-scale controversy with a divisive mixture of excitement and abomination flooding Piff’s inbox and the media.

Piff and the other researchers wrote in the report that “the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing” and that the “upper class”, to use his terminology, view greed as positive. He added that self-centred behaviour accompanies rising status, telling : “It’s not that the rich are innately bad, but as you rise in the ranks… you become more self-focused.”

In some cases the immoral, misogynistic and self-seeking Wolf of Wall Street-style stereotypes probably ring true – but that ‘some’ seems to get awkwardly confused with ‘most’ when such generalisations are made and sent out to sensationalist media outlets hungry for a good story.

The damage caused by such studies, or rather the media’s uptake of them, is two-fold; firstly it implies an awkward binary of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, evoking some sort of 16th-century ideology where the one is not to mix with the other for fear of contagion on either part; such a binary ignores the complexities of a modern, fluid and liberal society. Secondly it perpetuates the very stereotypes that cause divisions and negative perceptions in the first place; those stereotypes, which permeate all areas of society, can become dangerously self-fulfilling.

Piff’s conclusions, as with the Monopoly game, seem to lack solid evidence; one of the tests in the study, for example, found that drivers in more expensive cars – watched at an intersection – were more likely to cut up other vehicles and less likely to stop at a pedestrian crossing. That led reporters to conclude that the rich were more likely to break the law. But taking an expensive car as an indicator of overall wealth is problematic in itself, as Professor Meredith McGinley pointed out in a Bloomberg report. It also picks up and amplifies the minority, overlooking the two thirds who didn’t cut up other cars, for example.

Other research papers have made similarly sweeping and far-reaching conclusions. A study in 2010 by different UC Berkeley researchers found that those with less money were better at interpreting facial expressions. “Lower-class individuals have to respond chronically to a number of vulnerabilities and social threats”, co-author of the study Michael Kraus told Time. “You really need to depend on others … that makes you more perceptive of emotions.” Although in some cases there may well be truth in that, it’s another generalisation that uses the divisive lower-class/upper-class terms – ignoring the “complex mosaic” (to use the words of Stefan Trautmann, a Dutch researcher who led a more nuanced study in 2013) that shapes our actions. Education, profession and a host of other factors can influence our behaviour just as much as, if not more than, money.

Jumping to conclusions
What these studies seem to do is serve as a means of showcasing a pre-conceived ideology and set of stereotypes without solid evidence. That’s certainly suggested by Piff’s reaction to the results. “Would I be less excited if we found that higher-status people were more generous?” he asked, according to New York Magazine. “I’d probably be less excited, but that’s not what we found.”

Such pre-conceived stereotypes are damaging on any level and, in terms of wealth, can lead to harmful perceptions; according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that people linked higher-earning industries and businesses with unethical behaviour, even when those perceptions weren’t grounded in reality.

Those negative stereotypes disregard the flipside; perhaps most obviously demonstrated through world-renowned philanthropists like Bill Gates, who has pledged his fortune to the charity he and his wife set up, or Warren Buffett, who recently pledged $37bn to the same foundation, or indeed the 125 plus billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate at least half of their fortune before they die.

Those inspirational acts of kindness risk being eclipsed by the negative stereotypes that these polarising studies, or at least the media’s portrayal of them, exasperate. They encourage unnecessary social divisions that ignore the nuances and fluidity of modern society, provoking leaping conclusions and ungrounded perceptions, and encouraging an oversight of the very real positive action that can come out of all areas of society – regardless of how much money individuals do or do not possess.

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