The Effect of Wealth on People

January 8, 2014 Katharina Lochner
The Effect of Wealth on People

If you were a rich person, would you behave differently from the way you behave now?

How would you treat others around you? By contrast, what would change if you were poor? Not much, you think? Social psychologists are likely to disagree based on findings from a number of studies – they say your financial situation has a huge impact on your behaviour towards others.

Social psychologist Paul K. Piff from University of California at Berkeley was interested in the question how the experience of being a privileged player in a rigged game changes the way that people think about themselves and regard the other player. He conducted an experiment with 100 pairs of players in which he let them play the game of Monopoly. One of them was assigned a rich and the other a poor person’s role – randomly by flipping a coin. Dr. Piff was interested to see how their behaviour would change. The rich player began to move around the board louder and showed more signs of dominance while becoming ruder and less sensitive towards the other player. Finally, they became more demonstrative of their success and even ate more of the snack provided than the poor players. When rich players reflected upon why they had inevitably won this rigged game afterwards, they talked about what they had done to earn their success of the game. They ignored the features of the situation like the flipped coin that put them into the situation.

For some reason, blogger does not allow us to embed the TED Talk today, therefore we give you the link to Paul Piff’s TED Talk here: Paul Piff: Does money make you mean?

Being wealthy seems to considerably change people’s behaviour. Other experiments showed that richer people are less likely to share money they are given by the experimenter with a stranger and more likely to cheat in a game for winning a prize. Participants who were rich took two times as much candy from a jar that had been declared to be exclusively reserved for kids. Being wealthy seems to lead to more feelings of entitlement and higher self-interest, which may lead to outcomes like rule-breaking e.g. in traffic or unethical behaviour in work contexts.

However, this does not mean that rich people are bad people. Rather, it is more evidence for the fact that it is not only personality that determines our behaviour, but just as much the situations we are in. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo showed this in a very imposing manner in his famous Stanford prison experiment: people like you and me were randomly assigned either the role of a prisoner or of a guard. Within no time, the guards showed such brutal behaviour that the experiment needed to be stopped. Thus, apparently it does not require much for turning from a normal into an “evil” person. He identifies certain critical aspects of a situation that make counterproductive work behaviours more likely to appear: (1) Distraction: the individual is faced with many temptations; (2) Ambiguity: there are no clear rules; (3) Boredom: there is little variety; (4) Indifference: there is no cooperation; (5) Opportunism: the individual does not have his or her own opinions; (6) Superficiality: the individual does not think through the situation, behaviour and consequences.

On the other hand, there are interindividual differences in how likely people are to fall for the temptations of a situation and there are attributes that determine an individual’s susceptibility to the above mentioned critical aspects of situations (Zimbardo, 2007). These attributes can be summarized in two categories: impulse control and ethical awareness.

We could transfer this whole idea back to the context of work and ask: what makes an employee display unethical or risky behaviours? Based on Prof. Zimbardo’s findings, we can assess to what extent employees are prone to showing such behaviours in certain situations. This is e.g. what cut-e’s questionnaire squares does. It measures how likely someone is to fall for the cues of certain situations and show risky or unethical behaviour.

The good news about these findings is: the mechanism also works the other way round. For example, Paul Piffs points out that small psychological interventions can restore egalitarianism and empathy. Stressing values like cooperation, community, and compassion, and making rich people aware of the needs of others around them can considerably change their behaviour. Similarly, one can assume that a lot of counterproductive work behaviours can be changed by simply making people aware of the issues, of the consequences of their behaviour and of others’ needs.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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