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'The A**hole Effect': What Wealth Does to the Brain

As people get richer, they are more likely to feel entitled, to exploit others, and to cheat.

Photo Credit: aastock


Call it the asshole effect. That is the term coined by US psychologist Paul Piff after he did some stunning new research into the effects of wealth and inequality on people’s attitudes.

As we ponder [Australian politician] Joe Hockey’s budget and his division of the world into "leaners" and "lifters", as we learn from Oxfam that the richest 1% of Australians now own the same wealth as the bottom 60%, we would do well to consider the implications of Piff’s studies. He found that as people grow wealthier, they are more likely to feel entitled, to become meaner and be more likely to exploit others, even to cheat.

Piff conducted a series of revealing experiments. One was remarkably simple. Researchers positioned themselves at crossroads. They watched out for aggressive, selfish behaviour among drivers, and recorded the make and model of the car. Piff found drivers of expensive, high-status vehicles behave worse than those sputtering along in battered Toyota Corollas.

They were four times more likely to cut off drivers with lower status vehicles. As a pedestrian looking carefully left and right before using a crossing, you should pay attention to the kind of car bearing down on you. Drivers of high-status vehicles were three times as likely to fail to yield at pedestrian crossings. In contrast, all the drivers of the least expensive type of car gave way to pedestrians.

Fascinated by these results, Piff and his colleagues then looked at what created these impulses to bad behaviour. In their laboratory, the richest students were more likely to consider "stealing or benefiting from things to which they were not entitled" than those from a middle-class or lower-class background. Even people simply primed to feel rich helped themselves to more sweets meant for children in a lab next door than those primed to feel disadvantaged.

The reason, it turns out, is that even thoughts of being wealthy can create a feeling of increased entitlement — you start to feel superior to everyone else and thus more deserving: something at the centre of narcissism. They found this was true of people who were, in real life, better off. Wealthier people were more likely to agree with statements like "I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than other people" and place themselves higher on a self-assessed "class ladder" that indicated increasing levels of income, education and job prestige. This had straightforward and clearly measurable effects on behaviour.

For example, when told that they would have their photograph taken, well-off people were more likely to rush to the mirror to check themselves out and adjust their appearance. Asked to draw symbols, like circles, to represent how they saw themselves and others, more affluent people drew much larger circles for themselves and smaller ones for the rest of humankind. If you think of yourself as larger than life, larger and more important than other people, it is hardly surprising that your behaviour would become oriented towards getting what you think you deserve.

As Piff says, this goes way beyond the individual, to noxious social attitudes – like being punitive towards the poor while living the "because I’m worth it" lifestyle. As a society becomes wealthier, it can get more narcissistic, less empathetic and unwilling to look after the vulnerable. A majority of Republicans in a recent poll said they thought the poor in America had it easy. Greater feelings of entitlement might also lead to a tax revolt by the upper classes. It is the logic of "I’ve earned it", "It’s mine", and, "Why should I have to use my hard-earned cash for those inferior scroungers, the poor?"

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