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6 studies on how money affects the mind

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Paul Piff

Paul Piff shares some of his research on the science of greed at TEDxMarin.

How does being rich affect the way we behave? In today’s talk, social psychologist Paul Piff provides a convincing case for the answer: not well.

Paul Piff: Does money make you mean? Paul Piff: Does money make you mean? “As a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases,” he says in his talk from TEDxMarin. Through surveys and studies, Piff and his colleagues have found that wealthier individuals are more likely to moralize greed and self-interest as favorable, less likely to be prosocial, and more likely to cheat and break laws if it behooves them.

The swath of evidence Piff has accumulated isn’t meant to incriminate wealthy people. “We all, in our day-to-day, minute-by-minute lives, struggle with these competing motivations of when or if to put our own interests above the interests of other people,” he says. That’s understandable—in fact, it’s a logical outgrowth of the so-called “American dream,” he says. And yet our unprecedented levels of economic inequality are concerning, and since wealth perpetuates self-interest, the gap could continue to widen.

The good news: it doesn’t take all that much to counteract the psychological effects of wealth. “Small nudges in certain directions can restore levels of egalitarianism and empathy,” Piff says. Simply reminding wealthy individuals of the benefits of cooperation or community can prompt them to act just as egalitarian as poor people.

To hear more of Piff’s thoughts on the effects of having—or lacking—wealth, watch his compelling talk. Below, a look at some of studies from Piff’s lab and elsewhere.

Finding #1: We rationalize advantage by convincing ourselves we deserve it

The study: In a UC Berkeley study, Piff had more than 100 pairs of strangers play Monopoly. A coin-flip randomly assigned one person in each pair to be the rich player: they got twice as much money to start with, collected twice the salary when they passed go, and rolled both dice instead of one, so they could move a lot farther. Piff used hidden cameras to watch the duos play for 15 minutes.

The results: The rich players moved their pieces more loudly, banging them around the board, and displayed the type of enthusiastic gestures you see from a football player who’s just scored a touchdown. They even ate more pretzels from a bowl sitting off to the side than the players who’d been assigned to the poor condition, and started to become ruder to their opponents. Moreover, the rich players’ understanding of the situation was completely warped: after the game, they talked about how they’d earned their success, even though the game was blatantly rigged, and their win should have been seen as inevitable. “That’s a really, really incredible insight into how the mind makes sense of advantage,” Piff says.

Finding #2: People who make less are more generous…on the small scale

The study: Piff brought rich and poor members of the community into his lab, and gave each participant the equivalent of $10. They were told they cold keep the money for themselves, or share a portion with a stranger.

The results: The participants who made under $25,000, and even sometimes $15,000, gave 44% more to the stranger than those making $150,000 to $200,000 per year.

Finding #3: People who make less are more generous…on the large scale

The study: A 2012 Chronicle of Philanthropy study examined Internal Revenue Service records of Americans who earned at least $50,000 in 2008, then charted charitable giving across every state, city and ZIP code in the US.

The results: On average, households that earned $50,000 to $75,000 gave of 7.6 percent of their income to charity, while those who made make $100,000 or more gave 4.2 percent. Rich people who lived in less economically diverse—that is, wealthier—neighborhoods gave an even smaller percentage of their income to charity than those in more diverse neighborhoods: in ZIP codes where more than 40 percent of people made more than $200,000 a year, the average rate of giving was just 2.8 percent.

Finding #4: Rich people are more likely to ignore pedestrians

The study: In California, where drivers are legally required to stop for pedestrians, Piff had a confederate approach a crosswalk repeatedly as cars passed by, trying to cross the street. He videotaped the scenario for hundreds of vehicles over several days.

The results: The more expensive the car, the less likely the driver was to stop for the pedestrian—that is, the more likely they were to break the law. None of the drivers in the least-expensive-car category broke the law. Close to 50 percent of drivers in the most-expensive-car category did, simply ignoring the pedestrian on the side of the road.

Finding #5: Poverty impedes cognitive function 

The study: In this study published a few months ago, researchers Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and others measured farmers’ mental function a month before their harvests (when they were hurting for money) and then again a month after (when they felt flush). In a separate part of the study, they had poor and well-off participants think about finances, then determined the participants’ cognitive performance.

The results: As Mullainathan details in The New York Times, the same farmers performed worse before the harvest, when they had less money, than afterward, when they had more. And not just a little worse: their I.Q. before the harvest was 9-10 points lower, the same detriment caused by an entire night without sleep. As for the other part of the study: when poor participants thought about finances, they performed worse. Rich participants weren’t affected at all.

Finding #6: Those with less are better at reading facial expressions

The study: In 2010, a series of studies out of UCSF asked more than 300 upper- and lower-class participants to analyze the facial expressions of people in photos, and of strangers in mock interviews, to discern their emotions.

The results: The lower-class participants were better able to read faces in both cases. That is, they exhibited more “emotional intelligence, the ability to read the emotions that others are feeling,” as one of the study authors told NBC. But, if upper-class participants were told to imagine themselves in the position of lower-class people, it boosted their ability to detect other people’s emotions, counteracting the blinders-like effect of their wealth.