Stories | January 8, 2014

Does money make you mean?

Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford reportedly said: "Money doesn’t change men, it merely unmasks them." And wide-ranging research indicates something can indeed happen to people when they come into money.

A growing body of research suggests money and wealth can affect personality. How rich people are can influence the extent of their altruism, empathy and self-sufficiency. Potential knock-on effects range from propensity to make charitable donations to – perhaps surprisingly – whether they stop their car for pedestrians waiting to cross the road.

Play nice
University of California Berkeley researcher Paul Piff has found intriguing results in his investigations of wealth and social status on people’s behaviour. In one study, Piff and colleagues found that people with a lower socioeconomic status are actually more generous in a game used frequently in academic settings – called the “dictator game”. In the game, one person gets a financial windfall and has the option to give some of it to an anonymous stranger. Most people do give – and in Piff’s study people with less were more likely to do so.

In another experiment, detailed here, the researchers set up a Monopoly game with asymmetrical rules so that one randomly chosen player was sure to accumulate more money. Piff found that the “wealthier” players were on average ruder and were likely to attribute their success at the game to their own personal qualities when questioned afterwards – despite being fully aware of the biased rules that actually gave them their advantage.

But, you might say, that's a game, and those were university students. However, the researchers also found that drivers of nicer cars (which can be thought of as a proxy for the wealth of the driver) stop for pedestrians less frequently. Could that give a clue about their actions outside their cars too? Piff presents some of his ideas in a TED Talk here.

Tuning in to others
In October 2013, scientific author Daniel Goleman gave a provocatively titled lecture, Do Rich People Just Care Less?, in London at the RSA. Goleman described work by psychologist Dacher Keltner that suggests wealthy people are less likely to rely on other people in their social network than relatively poorer people are – and thus have less reason to pay attention to those other people. An example given was a poorer person stuck at work typically depending on a friend, relative or neighbour to pick up a sick child from school, compared to a richer person who might be more likely to use money to solve the problem by paying a babysitter to collect the child.

In other words, poorer people are likely to use their care and attention as a type of social currency in a system of reciprocity, and wealthier people to use money and market transactions across many areas of their lives. Goleman explains in his book Focus that this difference means that relatively poorer people show greater empathy, pay attention and maintain eye contact, and are less likely to interrupt. So, to answer the lecture title’s question, “do richer people just care less?”: if “care” is equated with “paying attention", it seems the answer might be “yes”. Added to that is other research showing that wealthy people tend to have a greater sense of entitlement and can be more narcissistic.

An enabler of good
But it is not all bad news. After all, many wealthy people give to charities that help change lives. The Giving Pledge is an association of billionaires who have committed to give at least 50% of their wealth to charitable or philanthropic causes. Bill and Melinda Gates have reportedly pledged to give away at least 95% of their fortune, and investor Warren Buffett has offered an impressive 99%. So while accumulating wealth may have an effect on a person's personality, it also can enable him or her to be more generous towards good causes. If what Henry Ford said is right, let's hope the unmasking reveals an underlying goodness.

Nathalie Spencer
Nathalie Spencer

Behavioural scientist at ING