In this entertaining but sobering TEDxMarin talk, social psychologist Paul Piff shares his research into how people behave when they feel wealthy. But while the problem of inequality is a complex and daunting challenge, there’s good news too.
Full speaker bio here.
Paul Piff – Social psychologist
I want you to, for a moment, think about playing a game of Monopoly, except in this game, that combination of skill, talent and luck that help earn you success in games, as in life, has been rendered irrelevant, because this game has been rigged, and you’ve got the upper hand. You’ve got more money, more opportunities to move around the board, and more access to resources.
And as you think about that experience, I want you to ask yourself, how might that experience of being a privileged player in a rigged game change the way that you think about yourself and regard that other player?
So we ran a study on the U.C. Berkeley campus to look at exactly that question. We brought in more than 100 pairs of strangers into the lab, and with the flip of a coin randomly assigned one of the two to be a rich player in a rigged game. They got two times as much money. When they passed Go, they collected twice the salary, and they got to roll both dice instead of one, so they got to move around the board a lot more.
And over the course of 15 minutes, we watched through hidden cameras what happened. And what I want to do today, for the first time, is show you a little bit of what we saw. You’re going to have to pardon the sound quality, in some cases, because again, these were hidden cameras. So we’ve provided subtitles.
[Video clips: Rich Player: How many 500s did you have?
Poor Player: Just one.
Rich Player: Are you serious.
Poor Player: Yeah.
Rich Player: I have three. I don’t know why they gave me so much.]
Okay, so it was quickly apparent to players that something was up. One person clearly has a lot more money than the other person, and yet, as the game unfolded, we saw very notable differences and dramatic differences begin to emerge between the two players. The rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece as he went around. We were more likely to see signs of dominance and nonverbal signs, displays of power and celebration among the rich players.
We had a bowl of pretzels positioned off to the side. It’s on the bottom right corner there. That allowed us to watch participants’ consummatory behavior. So we’re just tracking how many pretzels participants eat.
[Video clip: Rich Player: Are those pretzels a trick?
Poor Player: I don’t know.]
Okay, so no surprises, people are onto us. They wonder what that bowl of pretzels is doing there in the first place. One even asks, like you just saw, is that bowl of pretzels there as a trick? And yet, despite that, the power of the situation seems to inevitably dominate, and those rich players start to eat more pretzels.
[Video: Rich Player: I love pretzels.]
And as the game went on, one of the really interesting and dramatic patterns that we observed begin to emerge was that the rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person, less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success, more likely to showcase how well they’re doing.
[Rich Player: I have money for everything.
Poor Player: How much is that?
Rich Player: You owe me 24 dollars. You’re going to lose all your money soon. I’ll buy it. I have so much money. I have so much money, it takes me forever.
Rich Player 2: I’m going to buy out this whole board.
Rich Player 3: You’re going to run out of money soon. I’m pretty much untouchable at this point.]
Okay, and here’s what I think was really, really interesting, is that at the end of the 15 minutes, we asked the players to talk about their experience during the game. And when the rich players talked about why they had inevitably won in this rigged game of Monopoly — they talked about what they’d done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game, and they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation, including that flip of a coin that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place. And that’s a really, really incredible insight into how the mind makes sense of advantage.
Now this game of Monopoly can be used as a metaphor for understanding society and its hierarchical structure, wherein some people have a lot of wealth and a lot of status, and a lot of people don’t. They have a lot less wealth and a lot less status and a lot less access to valued resources.
And what my colleagues and I for the last seven years have been doing is studying the effects of these kinds of hierarchies. What we’ve been finding across dozens of studies and thousands of participants across this country is that 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.
In surveys, we found that it’s actually wealthier individuals who are more likely to moralize greed being good, and that the pursuit of self-interest is favorable and moral.
Now what I want to do today is talk about some of the implications of this ideology self-interest, talk about why we should care about those implications, and end with what might be done.
Some of the first studies that we ran in this area looked at helping behavior, something social psychologists call pro-social behavior. And we were really interested in who’s more likely to offer help to another person, someone who’s rich or someone who’s poor.
In one of the studies, we bring in rich and poor members of the community into the lab and give each of them the equivalent of 10 dollars. We told the participants that they could keep these 10 dollars for themselves, or they could share a portion of it, if they wanted to, with a stranger who is totally anonymous. They’ll never meet that stranger and the stranger will never meet them. And we just monitor how much people give. Individuals who made 25,000 sometimes under 15,000 dollars a year, gave 44% more of their money to the stranger than did individuals making 150,000 or 200,000 dollars a year.
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