Mary Wakefield

Being rich makes you mean: here's proof

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

It’s all the rage these days to worry about the growing gap between rich and poor. Our fretting was fuelled by Capital in the 21st Century, by the French economist Thomas Piketty, which claims to show that over time this gap will grow inexorably. But we’ve been agonising about equality for aeons, and for aeons arriving at the same stand-off between rich and (relatively) poor.

Here’s how the argument goes: those who don’t feel rich begin by saying that it’s disgusting how much of the world’s total wealth is owned by a small minority. Globally, the richest 10 per cent hold close to 90 per cent of the world’s assets. It’s just wrong, they say.

To which the rich, aggrieved, reply: ‘Why? What’s wrong per se with being wealthy? Look how much tax we pay! We pay for public hospitals and schools we don’t even use, so let’s have some gratitude, please, or we’ll up-sticks for the UAE.’ The rich have a point. In the UK the richest 5 per cent may own 40 per cent of the total wealth, but they pay 48 per cent of total tax. Even so, say the fretters, something is amiss. It’s not healthy, this gap — and here’s where the debate ends, in a disgruntled stalemate. Everybody’s right and everybody’s unhappy, as they say in Russia.

But what if the problem isn’t so much a financial one as a sociological or moral one? What if the unease people feel isn’t about inequality of wealth so much as in-equality of behaviour? We don’t pay them much heed these days, but Christianity, literature, folklore, myth and history all warn us repeatedly: money and power corrupt. Perhaps that’s what we’re really antsy about, and if so, science is on our side. Paul K. Piff, a sociologist at the University of California, studies the rich in the way Dian Fossey once did gorillas. Over the last few years he has set up a number of tests to examine the effects of money and status on behaviour, and the results are pretty terrifying: they read like an experimental proof of the New Testament.


In one of Piff’s scenarios, his researchers posed as pedestrians and waited at a crossroads to see what sort of cars would let them pass. Cars are required to give way to pedestrians in California, but what Piff discovered was that only people driving the cheapest cars, the old bangers, actually obeyed the law consistently. The more expensive the car, the more likely it was to zoom by, and the worst offenders were BMW owners. Pleasingly, Prius drivers were almost as bad; Piff ascribes this to a phenomenon he calls ‘moral licensing’. Because drivers had done a ‘good deed’ in choosing an eco car, they gave themselves licence to run over passers-by.

In test after test, Piff found that those who saw themselves as richer or more powerful than the average man (meaning, at times, you and me) behaved in a way we’d all agree was worse. For one thing, they were more miserly. When given ten bucks and told they could keep it or share it with a stranger, participants who earned under $25,000 a year gave nearly away nearly 50 per cent more than those who made over $200,000. Blessed are the poor.

More surprising than the tightfistedness of the rich was their relative lack of compassion. In one experiment, volunteers were left waiting beside a bowl of sweets, which they were told explicitly was reserved for children participating in a trial nearby. Poorer volunteers left the bowl alone, but at least half of the rich tucked in. Did they consciously realise they were taking candy from kids? I’m sure not. There’s evidence to suggest that those who feel powerful become past masters at inventing excuses for themselves which they quickly accept as true. Think of that bowl of sweets as a pot of taxpayers’ money, and the rich volunteer as an MP, and you begin to see why politicians, light-headed with self-regard, get into hot water over expenses.

But using Piff’s research to sneer at the rich or at politicians would be to miss the point. The wealthy aren’t a separate breed: power and money will corrupt us all. Piff’s most telling experiment involves 200 strangers, randomly selected and then paired up in the lab to play Monopoly. Before beginning, each pair flips a coin which selects one of them as the ‘rich’ player. Play then continues as normal, except that the ‘rich’ player is showered with unfair advantage. He begins with twice as much money, receives twice as much after passing ‘Go’, and is allowed to roll two dice where his opponent only rolls one. It doesn’t take long for the ‘rich’ player to start winning, and as he hauls in money and property, so his behaviour begins to change. He talks louder, say more aggressive things. He’s ruder and keener to flash his cash in front of the losing chap. A film of the Monopoly game shows ‘winning’ players bragging uncontrollably: ‘I have so much money. You’re going to lose all your money. I’m going to buy out this whole board’, all the while stuffing great handfuls of pretzels into their faces. When asked to explain why they won, players were all noticeably reluctant to ascribe their success to anything but skill. Instead of mentioning the rigged game, they discussed their brilliant strategies and said that they deserved to win.

See how the weasel mind turns luck into a well-earned triumph? It’s pretty depressing. Civilisation gives us the freedom to strive for success; but if we end up on top, we whip round and attack the things civilisation holds dear: compassion, empathy, humility. You have to be a saint to survive great riches.

But I can see an upside to the Monopoly experiment. If an average Joe can become sociopathic so quickly, then presumably the rich and powerful can, if nudged, undo their lack of concern. The hedge-fund manager Jonathan Ruffer wrote a moving piece for this magazine two years ago in which he proposed a solution to the stand-off. If the poor attack the rich, said Jonathan, the rich will believe (probably rightly) that it’s down to envy. It has to be the rich leading the rich — by giving money away. ‘This sounds as much fun as a Methodist sermon,’ he wrote, ‘but believe me, it’s the most wonderfully releasing thing — life as a colour film after black and white. If this sounds strange, remember that wealth has the character of a bully: whack it away and it turns out to be a very insipid adversary.’

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Show comments
  • RoyColeman

    “The rich have a point. In the UK the richest 5 per cent may own 40 per cent of the total wealth, but they pay 48 per cent of total tax.”

    These figures imply their tax burden is roughly 20 times that of the rest. Therein lies the problem, the richest control wealth many orders of magnitude greater than the 95% in absolute terms. A CEO earning more in a year than office staff in a lifetime? Apple richer than several countries combined? People have been executed for less. Piketty is absolutely correct.

    • balance_and_reason

      fool

    • rtj1211

      The reason is always because of the earnings distribution curve.

      If the poor were paid more, the rich would be a bit less well off.

      Most people on earth don’t consider widespread food poverty to be acceptable collateral damage for the rich paying a higher proportion of tax……

    • Terry Field

      Apple is richer than countries that are distinguishable as being hell-holes that life would leave if it could. That proves nothing.
      I am confused.
      I have a headache.
      Has anyone got a paracetamol please?

  • Mike Barnes

    It’s excellent when all of my pre-conceived notions and judgement get proven right by science!

    • balance_and_reason

      HaHa….you must be one of Tony Blair’s graduates if you think that’s science…

  • balance_and_reason

    It has actually been going on for a long time….Gates has spent the last 20 years giving away staggeringly large quantities of cash.

    The beautiful irony is that one can only spend a certain amount a cash on oneself and family….the trick is to encourage the wealthy…to undertake these benevolent roles…fete them …eulogise them…sanctify them when they have done it…they will deserve it, and they will be better than us, since they will have earned it in the first place and then benevolently handed it out …It costs nothing to do and society gains…plus we avoid socialism which fails everybody in the end.

    • Bonkim

      People will stop working if they get things free. It is the potential difference that drives mankind forward. The richer a society gets more opportunities for those at the top to expand – but it also drags the rest up. No point getting envious or hung up on differential as long those at the bottom are looked after – and no one can deny everyone is better off today compared with what they were say 50 years back.

      • balance_and_reason

        I completely agree but unfortuneately human nature is such that man is jealous of his neighbour…..essex man doesn’t give a toss if all singaporeans are three times richer, living like first division footballers, but if his cousin has made it in banking whilst he labours on in teaching…..something must be done…..multiply this over the nation for over 130 years and you have the seething mass of envy, resentment and bile that is the socialist movement.

        • Bonkim

          This is universal – even in the US socialism is creeping in as many now see the American dream crumbling and present generation not putting in effort or enterprising as the previous ones. The vast resource base is also shrinking – there just isn’t enough for everyone to get an equal share forever or the economy to keep expanding.

        • Peter

          I agred with you. I asked myself that question, why are the poor angry at the rich. And I came up to the conclusion people believe they are entitled. If the Nextdoors have a BMW why shouldn’t i . Honestly Rich people work very hard. People only see them on their free time and assume they do nothing but generate money. Rich people work like 12+ hours trying to make their business float. Most people don’t see that side. To blame the rich is scapegoatin the problem.

      • rtj1211

        I’m afraid you are deluded beyond compare. Capitalists now are global electronic thieves and most of Silicon Valley has been since the early 1990s.

        • Bonkim

          Agree computers have accelerated humanity’s decline – accelerated consumption and exploding populations across the globe will lead to demise of mankind on earth – give or take a century or two if not decades. Energy, water, and mineral resources are disappearing fast and at the root of many conflicts being played out on earth.

    • rtj1211

      The question is what he was doing to make such staggering amounts. If he was engaged in widespread wiretapping, IP looting and anti-trust monopolism, it’s a jolly good thing he’s giving it all away, as he had absolutely no right to make it in the first place…….

      • balance_and_reason

        You are clearly a teenager, or lack worldly experience. It is not in doubt that global capitalism is a rough and tumble, but it is the least bad way, subject to some governmental regulation, of allocating resources, getting things done, making progress. No other ideology has ever achieved anything remotely close. If you think the common man has not had a dramatically improved ‘life experience’ in the past 50 years then you are literally deluded…on just about every metric available, whilst socialism has failed in just about every arena it was tried in…Some do nothing, contribute nothing loser with a terminal can snipe ugly accusations from the side lines, but what have you done relative to Gates in improving life for millions of the ultra poor in Africa.

        The progress and accounts for Microsoft are well documented, if you could be bothered to read them.

        • RoyColeman

          The Communist Chinese have failed to “get things done” and bring hundreds of millions out of poverty?
          You’re clearly deluded old guy and by the way Microsoft’s original theft of operating system code is well documented if YOU could be bothered to read about it.

          • balance_and_reason

            I love a deluded old labour spin meister….the very fact that the communist Chinese politburo turned to capitalism and allowed free enterprise in china is what lifted millions out of poverty and turned what was a cratered soviet pre-industrial disaster into the largest economy in the world…….keep fingering your little red book friend, it belongs in a museum of deviant psychological misdeeds…remember the great leap forward …or was that the CIA’s fault aswell?

          • RoyColeman

            ..wrong on every count you pedantic bore. I live in S.Africa where the masses, by the way, STILL cannot afford mr.gates software – such appeasing of his conscience no doubt. I vote centrist so careful I’m your worst enemy. You may be chuffed the LIb-dems don’t have a proportional say in your two-party state, here we’re a little more enlightened,

          • balance_and_reason

            Not wrong on every point and since you are the Saffa, I think bore may be more appropriate for yourself.
            If you think communism lifted 300 million chinese out of poverty rather than capitalism I suggest you write a paper on it and publish, I’m sure it will be amusingly received , especially in Cuba.
            Sure plenty of South Africans can’t afford microsoft but thats more a problem of local governance than Bill Gate’s fault….and he’s certainly helping out on the medical side generally in Africa. I’m surprised you are so down on him; I can’t remember off hand how many lives his initiatives have saved but it is quite a few…perhaps you don’t approve.

          • RoyColeman

            “Sure plenty of South Africans can’t afford microsoft but thats more a problem of local governance than Bill Gate’s fault”

            Bullshit, the government has f**k all to do with M$ pricing here. Your “its ok to steal son, but we’ll ‘eulogize’ you if you deign to help us out one day when you’re a billionaire” attitude is the problem. At what point did you decide that economic crimes shouldn’t be addressed?

            “I’m surprised you are so down on him” ..huh? I suppose the US DOJ was just “jealous” of him too by your perverse reasoning.

          • balance_and_reason

            The beauty of capitalism is that if the product doesn’t work, a 100 other people strive to fill the gap…are you telling me there is no IT in S Africa, that no one has access to a computer; capitalism did it…did the mobile telephone revolution….how many people don’t have one in S Africa…suppose thats down to the Comrade’s too.

            When your personal contribution surpasses that of Mr Gates, then start talking.

          • RoyColeman

            There’s no inequality to worry about here. M$ effectively pays 2% tax on its profits. Screw the system.
            Next perhaps you’d like to clarify mr. berlusconi’s good deeds, mr. Murdochs, the Koch brothers, or the 18 US Companies that have avoided $90 Billion in tax. Small change..
            Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from China where they’re increasingly intolerant of such theft, bring back executions for tax evasion!
            Ahh.. the ‘beauty’ of capitalism.

          • balance_and_reason

            Execution for tax evasion…well, what about wasting tax payers money, the other side of the equation….are we going to have executions for that as well?

          • perdix

            In China it has been essential to have political connections in order to get rich. Authoritarian capitalism.

          • balance_and_reason

            It certainly wasn’t, and isn’t, perfect but it was enough. The largest difference was at the micro scale freeing up peasants to sell their own produce , small co’s to organise and respond to demand.
            A truly astonishing turnaround from a complete socialist basket case…the reason , of course , is that China had a pre established culture of education, work , deferred gratification and long term investment which had survived the communist dark age.
            There may still be hope for the North of England.

          • balance_and_reason

            It is well known, but gates, as imperfect as he is, brought fortune to many, enabled the computerisation of billions, and at least is working his conscience out now. I know you would rather we were all living in stalinist council blocks with ’84 style TV screens monitoring our thought crimes….

          • La Fold

            especially after 1978 when they adapted the “4 modenrisations” i.e capitalism.

          • Michael Kaldezar

            Whats communist about the current regime in China apart from the name?

          • RoyColeman

            I’ll forgive you for that one, you must have missed the election, but Michael Narendra Modi is not Chinese.

          • Michael Kaldezar

            Bill gates and his team wrote DOS, it wasn’t stolen. It was ordered by IBM for their then forthcoming PC. Microsoft had a great deal which allowed them to sell essentially the same software as MS_DOS as opposed to IBM-DOS.

          • RoyColeman
  • Elizabeth Knollys

    Emotional incontinence is only alleviated by the study of history.

  • Raw England

    Let me make this very simple:

    If we had destroyed the idea of immigration and multiculturalism when it first reared its ugly, vicious head in the 1950’s-60’s, we’d now be living in a rich, safe, advanced White society with high levels of White equality.

    • Bonkim

      Living in your deluded dreams!

      • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

        Care elaborate on this? The benefits of immigration versus the detriments are 50/50…… Therefore, arguably of no benefit.

        • Bonkim

          The earth is overpopulated and there will be overspill regardless of whether you like it or not – all through history people have moved across borders for various reasons, colonised new lands, fought wars for territory – so the process continues whether it is to the detriment of others or not. Most world conflicts arise due to resource scarcity and why do you think Britain will somehow remain unaffected or can isolate itself from history? Some of those shouting loudest are probably descendants of immigrants. It will be difficult to find a genetic equation defining the British/English race – a very mongrel race if there was one on earth.

          • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

            You’re very ignorant, it is our choice who we let in, it is our country, the civilisation we as a people have set up. My Grandpa paid taxes all his life, his generation built our schools and hospitals, there is no way on earth an immigrant can come here and have paid his/her share into the system for it to offset their use.

          • Bonkim

            You have no idea of Britain’s history – and the people from across the globe that made Britain what it is today. There are laws that regulate immigration but unlikely your conceited brain understands all that. I won’t call you racist – real-politik – no brains for that, but an emotional fruitcake certainly.

          • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

            Immigrants did not make Britain what it is today.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDGejzIi8ts

            You’re unbelievably ignorant.

            There are no laws to regulate immigration from the EU. It’s Realpolitik you retard.

          • Bonkim

            Don’t waste your time – EU immigration is part of the deal – and I am sure in time will be renegotiated or Britain will get out.

          • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

            Yeh, soon. There is no benefit to us.

    • PaulHalsall

      I believe you will find that the idea of immigration existed long before the 1950s.

      • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

        The premise of immigration was in existence here (from your previous comment I can see you like to split hairs) but in practice immigration before the 50s was very very minimal.

        • Ollie Smith

          I think you’ll find anyone outside of Africa is indeed an immigrant.

  • rtj1211

    It is far more likely that if the route to wealth for you was through being mean, then you are unlikely to change much when maintaining your wealth.

    If, however, you got rich through generosity, maybe the only reason you will change is if never ending streams of sponging charlatans spend day and night trying to rob you.

  • PaulHalsall

    “In the UK the richest 5 per cent may own 40 per cent of the total wealth, but they pay 48 per cent of total tax.”

    Apart from choosing the very odd 5% figure, this simply is not true, unless you think National Insurance, VAT, car taxes, fuel taxes, excise duties, and council tax are not in fact taxes.

  • Liz

    If the rich believe in meritocracy then let each generation start with a clean sheet, no inheritance, no private schooling or health. Let the best rise to the top on their own talents and hard work, rather than other people’s.

    • manonthebus

      Don’t worry. Have you ever heard of the saying ‘rags to rags in three generations’? And don’t forget that some of the richest people in the world came out of the shambles left when the soviet union collapsed.

  • victor67

    This is basically an argument for neo-liberalism but with a compassionate twist. If the super rich and their wealthy cousins can be more altruistic then this is the answer to societies problems.
    This is b—ocks . The likes of Gates’s philanthropy ignores the fact the super rich maintain the power to judge the causes they deam worthy and ultimately is a way of avoiding scrutiny on how one individual can accrue so much wealth.
    The only real answer to in-equality is for the profits of successful companies to share the wealth among the workers and not just the shareholders. And also the wealthy need to pay the tax they are meant to. Its not rocket science.

    • Augustus

      So you don’t like it when, under capitalism, the rich become powerful, but you’re quite happy when, under socialism, the powerful become rich?

      • victor67

        If you look at my 2nd post. The same principles apply to those that became powerful in Communist regimes.

        • Augustus

          Being against shareholders is pure socialism. Good luck, I say, to people who are able to create businesses that earn them millions or even billions. There is no such thing as an egalitarian society. When politicians decide what is bought and sold, the first to be bought and sold are the politicians.

      • transponder

        Bingo!

  • victor67

    Where Martin is correct is in his assessment of the psychopathology of unchecked capitalism.
    Primitive human drives like greed, ruthlessness and aggression if harnessed in a way that is acceptable to society are the “attributes” that will help you get to the top in this neo-liberal utopia
    . While the values of community, social justice and fairness are for the little people. The latest announcement that Children’s social services could be privatised is a good example. Imagine trusting the protection of vulnerable children to the vultures in the free market.

  • BoiledCabbage

    The backward Left seem to desire some Hobbesian Year Zero to get everyone back plantating potatoes with their bare hands.

    What is more likely, given taht we are taking here about paper wealth, is a market crash, property crash and soverign bond crash that will have the same approximate effect. All three markets are rigged by the central banks. The cost of money is not 0.5%, yet that illusionary benchmark has distorted valuations.

  • Realpolitik/ fruitcake/ racist

    How is making enough money so you don’t have any of the worries of modern day life, eg, gas bill, mortgage etc and being able to do what you want when you want going to make you a bad person? Money buys freedom, it creates a buffer from the outside world, buy a big country pile with 500 acres and be done.

    • transponder

      Hear triple hear!

  • transponder

    Keep going with the shallow-as-a-runnel Leftism, Mary. I don’t know who it will benefit, but you clearly can’t help yourself. Or others.

  • Peter

    I think the problem is a social problem. 1. We are not all supose to have the same thing.not because someone has something means we are automatically entitled to have it to it, maybe if we have a perspective shift, we won’t see ourselves as poor or rich because things will be taylored to us within our current means. 2. As a society we should stop only thinking about ourselves and have a little empathy to those who really need the help in society. 3. We should stop being so materilistic and trying to use material things to full us, this rich vs poor thing is based upon how much material goods you have. Life is not all about money. This rich vs poor thing is a way of trying to feel better about ourself, truth is at anyone given time, someone will be above as well as below you. We are always in the middle.

  • Jonathan Byrne

    At the risk of sticking my neck out…in effect,
    the rich will always be rich and the poor will always be poor, relatively
    speaking; and it’s the rich who get the three course meals and the poor that
    get the leftovers. And, for ever and a day, that’s just not nice… And, also the
    “equalized society of affluence and social equality”, for what it’s worth, is
    just the same old thing but just with more fringe benefits on offer with it – consumed
    as it is with a twist of honey every day – over and over again.

  • Amanda

    I think the journalist is confused.

    Mary Wakefield summarized the Ted Talk as “the real problem isn’t inequality of wealth, it’s inequality of behavior”.

    Emm – the rigged Monopoly board being a metaphor for society?

    This is exactly the opposite of the talk….The highlights of the Ted talk were:

    “The real problem is inequality of wealth and this leads to bad behavior.

    The article too was awful.

    It evades the whole point. That the systemic rigging of the game means that advantaged players are steadily gaining a greater proportion of the wealth and we have reached unprecedented level of wealth inequality.

    The player never reaches the point where he says “Em maybe I have enough now”. No matter his wealth.

    The wealthy player develops negative behaviors: meanness and arrogance.

    He never acknowledges the systemic inequality…and puts the gain all down to “personal success.”

    He finds moral justification for his hoarding. Says: ‘Well I pay so much tax’, without acknowledging any extraction from employees and resources.

    I find this subject fascinating because I have witnessed it close-up. My brother became a trader after university, ambitious/bright, became a multi-millionaire before 30, and now has his own enterprise with over 1,000 employees.

    We are from a working family and I have found it fascinating to observe his behavior over 25 years. He gives money to our dad who is now poor. He gives him little bits, like £100 ($150) here and there. But for himself maybe a gold watch for £5k ($8k). The most interesting thing to observe is that the more he accumulates the more his behavior modifies and changes. It’s a gradual process. He filters all info, events, people, etc according to how it benefits him, so his advice has always been unreliable. The relationship is very one-sided i.e. it is all about him. He might call and talk for hours (his emotional or relationship problems normally) but he wouldn’t tolerate the same back.

    You might think, does he never get to the point where he thinks ‘okay that’s fine, that’s enough now,’ but he never does. The irony is that the more he has, the more he wants. It’s like an unquenchable thirst to dominate, to take everything no matter the causalities. From the outside it looks like an illness. It’s very interesting.

    At the same time, I have watched the change in the small town I was born (30,000 people). 25 years ago it was a bustling little town. The high st was packed on a Saturday, everyone ‘went up town,’ and there were little fruit markets, clothes shops, cafes, fish market. Then Tesco built a huge, massive uber-Tesco on the outskirts, cut its’ prices and waited.

    It wasn’t long before people gravitated to the store. The Tesco branch sat at a loss for a year or so (it could afford to). One-by-one the towns fruit ships, fish, electronic store, clothes, etc all closed. When they all died Tesco hiked the prices up. In effect the town center was moved from a quaint 18th century High St to a fluorescent rectangle.

    Now the High St is like a ghost town. There are 17 charity shops and that’s about it and all the boutique stores and cafes had to close. There is no money circulating the town. Before there were loads of sole-traders, hustle, bustle, more opportunities and the money stayed local.

    But now Tesco is the big employer (pays minimum wage of course) and sucks all
    the money out of the town into a central bank.

    The question is, with Tesco doing so much for everyone, and being so “successful”, should they bother even paying tax? The answer is they probably don’t (give anywhere near what they take.. when you look at the big picture)… and the tax they do pay sure as hell doesn’t go back into my small town.

    The problem I have is that this steady tipping of scales… this rigging of the game… makes places ugly and people ugly.

    Of all the possibilities, the capacity, richness, diversity, humanity, intellect, humor… why this sickness?

    Something’s got to give, but no-one will, and no-one can… and that’s why this video is so interesting.

  • crumpet0504

    I particularly like B Gates quote, yet that man may have changed his tune – back from the days when he outmaneuvred competitors with better OS – but not his behaviour, he still favours big business (remember the Gardasil vaccination scandal?) over the well-being of the common man. No, wealth does not corrupt everyone: there is integrity, upbringing and there is character (only partly determined by genes). Some simply have none of these.

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