Does being rich make you mean?

Source: BBC

By Claudia Hammond

At some time or another you’ve probably found yourself in a bar where the richest person present seems to be the slowest to reach for their wallet when it’s time to buy a round. You might wonder whether they were always this mean, and maybe that helped them become rich? Or is there something about having money that’s made them mean?

It’s a complex question and one that can be approached in many different ways. You could take a group of people known to be interested in the topic of money, such as economists, and compare their generosity with others. One study from back in 1993 did just this and found that the number of economics students who admitted to giving nothing to charity was double that of those studying architecture or psychology. The same researchers also found that economics students were less likely to behave kindly in games involving co-operation such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

When students were assessed at the start and end of their degree courses, those studying other subjects became slightly more generous as they approached graduation while economics students remained at the same less-generous level throughout. Of course these are averages, so altruistic economics students exist too.

In fact, there is some evidence showing that people who have more money, or who live in more expensive areas at least, might behave more altruistically. Researchers walked around 20 different parts of London, scattering 15 stamped, addressed letters onto the pavements in each area. Then they waited to see how many letters would be found by kindly passers-by and posted. In the richer areas such as Wimbledon 87% of the letters found their way home, compared with just 37% in poorer districts, such as Shadwell.

(Credit: Alamy)

People living in affluent areas are more likely to make an organ donation – but it could be they are simply happier, making them more altruistic (Credit: Alamy)

The better-off also appear to show their generous side more often with so-called ‘acts of extraordinary altruism’ – actions where there is little public recognition and no chance of someone doing the same for you in return. For example, Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz and Abigail Marsh from Georgetown University tried to find out why rates of kidney donation to strangers vary so much between different US states.

They looked at various factors including religiosity, but the strongest predictor was median income levels. Simply put, states where people earned more money saw more kidney donations. This doesn’t necessarily show that richer individuals are more likely to donate a kidney than poorer people. What it does suggest is that higher altruism seems to be associated with increasing affluence in a population, but this might because there are also higher rates of wellbeing, which in turn allow people to behave more altruistically.

Richer people were more likely to state that they were never wrong, and that they were good at everything

So with the exception of the economics students of the 90s, rich people do seem to come out of the research quite well. That’s until you read the work of Paul Piff from the University of California Berkeley.  In one study he gave people a series of statements to measure entitlement, such as ‘If I were on the Titanic I would deserve to be on thefirst lifeboat.’ Staggeringly some people did endorse this comment and the people who did, were more often rich than poor. The richer people were also more likely to agree that they were never wrong and good at everything, and to check their appearance in a mirror before their photo was taken.

(Credit: Alamy)

People given a headstart in a game of Monopoly often failed to recognise their unfair advantage, and instead claimed that they had simply played more wisely (Credit: Alamy)

In another study Piff assembled a group earning a range of incomes, some on as much as $200,000 a year, and gave each of them $10. They could choose how much of it, if anyone to give away. Piff found the poorer people were more generous.

But remember, these people were rich before they took part in Piff’s tests. Maybe it was not their wealth that dictated their behaviour, but their behaviour which helped them to become wealthy. Maybe being more careful with money, coupled with an inflated sense of self belief, helped them to get rich.

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