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The Things We Do: Will Money Make You Mean?

Roxanne Bauer's picture
In a TEDTalk published Dec 20, 2013, social psychologist Paul Piff shares the results of several research studies on how people behave when they feel wealthy. He concludes that while inequality is a complex and formidable challenge, there are bright spots, too. 
In the first study, two participants are asked to play Monopoly, but one player is given more money than the other.  Throughout the course of the game, the 'rich' player moved around the board louder, made sounds of dominance and non-verbal displays of power, and became ruder and less sympathetic to the 'poor' player.  After the game ended and the rich player won, the rich player talked about what he/she did and bought during the game to explain the outcome- they did not mention the unfair advantage they were given at the start of the game.

Piff believes that Monopoly can be used as a metaphor for many contemporary societies in which some people are born with more access to resources, money and power. 
TED Talks, Paul Piff

He asserts that as a person’s level of wealth increases, their feelings of compassion and empathy decrease while his/her sense of entitlement and self-interest increase.  He supports this argument with other studies, explained in the TEDTalk, exploring the willingness of people to share money with strangers, the likelihood of people to cheat while playing games, how much candy people take from a jar explicitly labeled for children, or the probability of drivers to stop for pedestrians.

Across the studies, Piff states, “wealthier people are more likely to moralize greed as being good.”  They are more likely to put their own needs above those of others and to pursue an idea of success that is detrimental to others.

Compiling evidence from around the world, the researchers also found that as economic inequality widens, social mobility, economic growth, community life, social trust, life expectancy, educational performance, physical health all go down. Conversely, negative outcomes like obesity, drug abuse, teenage births, rates of violence and imprisonment, and the incidence of punishment go up as economic inequality increases. 

However, small psychological interventions, small nudges, Piff says, can restore values of egalitarianism and empathy.  In another study, simply reminding people of the benefits of cooperation, community, and compassion encouraged participants to help people in distress— and rich and poor people alike were inspired to act altruistically.

So, will money make you mean?  Probably… but staying grounded and considering others can reverse that just as quickly.

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