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Does More Money Make You Mean?

July 20, 2015

Money and its influence on personal happiness has been a topic of study for years; however, there have not been many studies that focus on how people with a sizable amount of money, and those with little money, interact with others.  With income and wealth inequality increasing over the past twenty years, this topic has become extremely prevalent for social psychologists.  With that in mind, Paul Piff, who is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, and a team of researchers, used numerous experiments to figure out if money does indeed make you an unkind individual.  (Piff presented his rapidly successful TEDx Talk in Marin County, which when the presentation was delivered, was the 8th wealthiest county in America.)  


To make sure he had a solid foundation for his findings, Piff conducted a multitude of experiments.  (From TED Speaker) "[Piff's] surprising studies include running rigged games of Monopoly, tracking how those who drive expensive cars behave versus those driving less expensive vehicles and even determining that rich people are literally more likely to take candy from children than the less well-off." 


That last experiment had the crowd laughing; yet with the economic gap widening, it highlights an underlying issue that is troublesome for our country. "The results often don't paint a pretty picture about the motivating forces of wealth. Piff writes, "Specifically, I have been finding that increased wealth and status in society lead to increased self-focus and, in turn, decreased compassion, altruism, and ethical behavior."  


The unethical behavior is something I can understand and sometimes expect from a CEO or a large business owner.  Yet, it was the decrease in compassion and altruism that stood out to me.  What makes people who have more money feel as though they don't need to help or give back?  In reality, those are the individuals who have the ability to make a sizable difference in the communities around them.  This brings me to Piff's last experiment. He brought in rich (average income of $150,000-250,000) and poor ($15,000-25,000) participants and gave them each the equivalence of $10. He wanted to test who would be more likely to offer help to a complete stranger.  His results showed that the poor participants gave 44 percent more of their money to the stranger than wealthy participants.  


The poor participants showed more empathy and compassion towards strangers, and this study, more than any other, highlighted the different thought process for wealthy and poor individuals. (That thought process was also evident in this YouTube video.)  Piff points out that the thought process needs to change in order for wealthy individuals to conjure up those feelings of compassion and empathy.  As he states in his TEDx Talk: "We've been finding in our own laboratory research that small psychological interventions, small changes to people's values, small nudges in certain directions, can restore levels of egalitarianism and empathy. For instance, reminding people of the benefits of cooperation, or the advantages of community, cause wealthier individuals to be just as egalitarian as poor people."  


These small changes in thinking are crucial for the future of our country.  We are now at an unprecedented level of economic inequality, and the gap between the wealthy and poor is only increasing.  As we work on restoring balance to our economic system, it is equally important to change the way we think about how we interact with one another.  So it is up to us to identify ways in which we can restore the personal element to interpersonal communication and act in a more compassionate and empathizing manner.




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