How money changes us, and not for the good

NEW YORK | BY CHRIS TAYLORMoney | Tue Feb 16, 2016 9:21am EST

Whether we have money or not, one thing is certain: It is never far from our minds.

Just look at the presidential election. Among the candidates are a billionaire and a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, each with their own prescriptions about how to address rampant income inequality. (Waiting in the wings is another billionaire.)

Paul Piff, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of California, Irvine, has been studying how money changes us and our relationships with each other. Most of the findings point to money bringing out negative behavior in people.

“The more money you have, the more focused on yourself you become, and less-sensitive to the welfare of people around you,” Piff says.

He made this the topic of a TED talk in 2013 called “Does money make you mean?” (bit.ly/1uwVfKg) that has now racked up almost three million views.

With income inequality such a key issue in 2016, Reuters spoke with Piff to find out how wealth alters our behavior – and what that means for society.

Q: How did you come to go about studying if money makes people behave badly?

A: We rigged a Monopoly game. Hundreds of pairs of strangers came into our lab, and one of those people was randomly assigned to be the rich player. They got twice as much money, got to roll two dice instead of one and were given more cash when passing ‘Go.’

Even though it was so clearly rigged, within a few minutes we started to see pattern shifts in behavior. Rich players were ruder, louder, more dominant. They would celebrate their success, and talk about how much money they had.

At the end of game, we asked people about why they had won. Rich players always focused on specific things they had done, like buying certain properties. But really, it all came down to luck, of having been assigned the role of the rich player.

Q: What parallels did you see between that Monopoly game and real life?

A: It’s random what family you are born into. Some people are born into lives of privilege, and some aren’t. But despite not having earned that privilege, people tend to attribute it to things they did and how much they deserve it. Parents’ wealth often correlates with a sense of entitlement.

Q: Why should we care about how money alters our thinking?

A: When you feel entitled, you are more likely to do the wrong thing. In experiments we have run, we have seen that you are more likely to break ethical norms to serve your self-interest, or lie to get ahead, or cheat in games, or break laws.

Q: Since you gave your TED talk, inequality has only gotten more extreme. Why do you say this is a problem for the 1 percent as well?

A: Inequality is a pressing issue, and not just for the poor, but for everyone. The social fabric gets frayed, trust and cooperation are undermined, people’s health gets worse. Inequality makes social outcomes worse for everybody – and that’s a problem.

The real challenge is that it’s a self-perpetuating dynamic, because those at the top feel they are more deserving of what they have, and become less-willing to share those resources with others. Inequality creates more distance between people.

Q: So what can be done to bridge that distance?

A: It’s not the case that wealthy people are corrupt. That’s a caricature. But wealth is a resource that comes with certain psychological tendencies. If wealth tends to drive a decrease in compassion and kindness and generosity, then we have to find ways to mitigate that.

In the lab, for instance, we found that poorer people were initially more generous than richer people. But when shown a short video about poverty, richer people became just as generous.

The Giving Pledge, where billionaires have promised to give away at least half of their wealth to charity, is one step in the right direction.

The real problem is that wealth makes us turn inward. We have to shake ourselves up psychologically, reconnect with the needs of others, and get out of our insular worlds.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Dan Grebler)

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