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July 19, 2013 at 9:43 AMComments: 14 Faves: 0

The Influence of Affluence

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Culturology Blog Series

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln

Change (In the House of Lies)

Money changes people. We’ve all heard this banal idiom about the corruptible influence of wealth. But there is nothing inherently evil about money; it’s simply a faulty construct that we’ve deemed necessary to quantify the value of actual commodities. I may not like that this system exists in an abstract sense, but I’m certainly not burning my paychecks every other Friday either. The important thing to remember is that money itself is not real; it’s just another lie, so it doesn’t matter - or at least, it shouldn’t. (Granted, I don’t have much of it, so I recognize that this is a highly convenient position to take.)

This system operates on the idea that greed isn’t such a bad thing after all; that certain people deserve power, others deserve the whip, and everyone else operates as consumer to reinforce this dynamic.

There is, however, something inherently evil about money's wicked step-sister, greed, because greed is an emotion that values the ends over the means, circumstance and consequence be damned. In a modern, post-industrial context (and in many historical epochs prior to the modern age), this usually implies a ruthless obsession with achieving higher social status. Naturally, this obsession is inexorably linked to the quest for power; the two terms are actually synonymous.

The problem here is that, since it is potentially limitless, the accumulation of power is insatiable. This is an unavoidable phenomenon; it is part and parcel of our makeup as human beings. Our desire for a dominant/subservient dynamic seems to be part of our makeup. People like to think that the goals they set for their relationships with others are based on achieving mutual admiration and respect, but the impulse to dominate (or submit) is always there, no matter how innocuous it may seem. Simply put, the world, and our conscious and subconscious interpretation of it, is based on hierarchical power structures – structures that refuse denial. 

Spears and Spare Change

Okay, so the world is horrible, and everything sucks; we’ve all heard this from me before. But a fair question at this point is why, despite my unsubstantiated theories about money, greed, and the innate instinctual desire for power, aren’t we all running around pounding our chests with our left fist and shoving spears into each other’s eyeballs for a bit of spare change with our right? Well, somewhere along the line, we realized the fallibility of the unchecked individual. In response to this, we’ve attempted to create a system of law and order that will prevent this from happening. However, because a truly infallible system of law and order would allow for too much equity among the masses, complex economics had to be introduced to ensure hierarchy through class status.

Cheating, bullying, lying, and stealing become endorsed rather than condemned because these character traits are summarily viewed as forms of initiative - not as exploiting opportunity, but rather simply taking advantage of it.

The key element of the established paradigm is that certain social groups are doomed to eternal failure, while others are born into a providential system that ensures not only their success, but the exponential accumulation of such throughout the generations; it manifest perpetually and, basically, of its own accord. Meanwhile, those in the middle are locked into perpetual stasis through the encouraged and enforced system of debt. Once these pieces are in place, we can just put everything on autopilot and watch the opposing divergence of wealth and povery. This system operates on the idea that greed isn’t such a bad thing after all; that certain people deserve power, others deserve the whip, and everyone else operates as consumer to reinforce this dynamic. We continue to pretend that class distinction in America doesn’t exist while, simultaneously, it is played out on every street corner in this country on a daily basis.

Monopoly Megalomania

Paul Piff, Dacher Keltner, and several of their colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley have been attempting to create a model of social behavior based on social class. There are two dichotomous assumptions that could be made from the onset:

  1. Typically, lower class individuals live in worse circumstances and one assumption might be that they would be willing to behave immorally out of a sense of desperation to improve their social and financial situation.
  2. Conversely, it could also be assumed that affluent individuals might have a tendency to behave inappropriately out of a sense of entitlement and freedom from the standard restrictions of society.

To help craft a theory of ethics and social class, Piff’s team conducted seven experiments to determine whether the lower class or the higher class would be more closely associated with unethical behavior. Time and time again, they found that “increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritize self-interest over others’ welfare and perceive greed as positive and beneficial, which, in turn, gives rise to increased unethical behavior.”

Given the unprecedented gap between the haves and the have-nots, their work seems to have significant bearing on the current and future economic climate of the United States and probably the world in general. As this financial divide continues to widen, wealth becomes an even more valuable resource in a perpetual system, while greed and unethical behavior become confused with the drive to be successful. Cheating, bullying, lying, and stealing become endorsed rather than condemned because these character traits are summarily viewed as forms of initiative - not as exploiting opportunity, but rather simply taking advantage of it. This depraved ruthlessness is nothing new; historically, we’re a barbarous species obsessed with violence, sexual domination, and oppression. What is new, however, is the idea that this despicable behavior has become acceptable and is occasionally even referred to as “sophistication.” This alleviates the guilt of deplorable class-influenced behavior and reinforces and re-balances the individual’s ego.

“You, like a real rich person, start to attribute success to your own individual skills and talents, and you become less attuned to all of the other things that contribute to you being in the position that you’re in.”

Many of the psycho-social experiments Piff’s team designed were based on this idea of affluence as reprehensibility. For instance, they set up a rigged version of everyone’s favorite real estate-based board game, Monopoly (ironic considering the Socialist origins of the game), in which there are only two players – one is set up as “rich” ($2,000 to start, $200 for passing go, and two dice two roll) and the other is set up as comparatively “poor” ($1,000 to start, $100 for passing go, and only one die to roll – eliminating the potential for rolling doubles). For good measure, the rich participant is given the convertible Rolls Royce game piece, whereas the impoverished player gets the flimsy shoe. Naturally, in every single game played by random Berkeley students, the rich person easily defeated the poor.

This result was expected. What wasn’t expected, however, was the increasingly smug, entitled attitude on the road to victory. Within just a few minutes of becoming a part of the wealthy class, these 20-year-olds began losing their sense of obligatory embarrassment at being handed a loaded deck, and began displaying a more pompous, privileged stance toward their opposition - members of the inferior social class. These behaviors included speaking in more demanding, demonstrative language, eating with their mouths open, and emphatically pounding their game pieces during moves.

Perhaps most telling, though, was the surprising attitude of the winners. When they were asked after the game if they felt they deserved to win, there was a consistent delusional sentiment that they hadn’t won because of the good fortune they’d been assigned, but rather that they’d achieved victory through their own merit. In less than an hour, they'd inherited an unbeatable set of circumstances and then convinced themselves that this inheritance had nothing to do with their perceived awesomeness. According to Piff in an interview with PBS NewsHour, “You, like a real rich person, start to attribute success to your own individual skills and talents, and you become less attuned to all of the other things that contribute to you being in the position that you’re in.” The lesson here is that affluence, even when, and perhaps especially when, it is only temporary and arbitrarily achieved through no actual merit on the part of the individual, seems to influence negative behavior patterns because the issues of providence and aptitude become largely confused.

People like to believe that they are self made, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Cyclical Damage

Here’s another reason that this gap will continue to perpetuate itself: Wealthy people are smarter than those who are impoverished. I didn’t like typing that sentence anymore than you liked reading it, but research has proven it to be true time and time again. In her article, “The Money-Empathy Gap,” (based on the UCB experiment), Lisa Miller references public health research that shows that, “At 3 years old, poor kids have vocabularies that are three times smaller than their better-off peers” and that, “In poor children, executive function is not as developed as it is in more affluent children, which means they have a harder time sorting and organizing information, planning ahead, and coping in the event of changed circumstances.” Furthermore, she references research conducted by yet another Berkeley Professor, Robert Knight, that, “has shown that kids raised in a poor neighborhood are more likely to have frontal lobes… that appear damaged.” Frontal lobes are the section of the brain that influence attention and focus, so this deficiency likely informs the conversation regarding the prevalence of ADHD among children of less affluent families.

Most people will point out that this difference in intelligence probably has just as much, if not more, to do with nurture than it does nature. To you, I would say… Yes, exactly! That is exactly the point! We live in a society that fosters the perpetual extension of deliberate class separation and that is having incomprehensible effects on all aspects of society. These effects are rippling throughout the classes, narrowing the futures of some and broadening those of others. People like to believe that they are self made, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The single largest predictor of prosperity in this life relates directly to an individual’s parents’ income level. Furthermore, we are the victims and benefactors of circumstance. Every single experience has a significant impact on our lives, but those experiences stem from our circumstances. When they are positive across the board, we’re far more likely to grow up to become successful people. When they’re not, we’re not.

Don’t believe my liberal musings? Here’s some food for thought from Miller’s article: “The top fifth of American families have seen their incomes rise by 45 percent since 1979, whereas the bottom fifth has seen a decline of almost 11 percent.” Eat up folks; soup’s gettin’ cold!


Miller, Lisa. “The Money Empathy Gap.” New York Magazine. News and Features. 01 Jul. 2012. Web. 18 Jul. 2013.

Piff, P.K; Stancator, D.M.; et. al. “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior.” PNAS. 27 Feb. 2012. Web. 18 Jul. 2013.

More from Kyle McCarthy from SLN Others Are Reading


  • So, how do we balance the inherent need to dominate/serve with the burgeoning gap between the wealthy and the less than well off? Are we doomed to cycle through the rise, rebel, repeat formula for all time? Or do you see a solution on the horizon?

  • Well the first step in solving any problem is to become conscious of its existence. The idea presented in this piece is nothing new; people have long suspected the wealthy of acting outside of conventional ethical standards. Yet, as I tried to stress, wealth itself is not the problem. According to these studies, it's the fact that the accumulation of wealth seems to influence our attitudes, placing affluent individuals in a dominant role. When this occurs, it appears that this cross section of America simply loses the ability to empathize effectively. They rationalize their behavior by assuming the rest of us are just jealous, but that's not it at all. We're just fed up with their ridiculously entitled behavior.

    Within the Capitalist model, the financial gap is perpetual and inevitable. Since the Capitalist model also most closely resembles base human instincts, it stands to reason that these sort of power plays are also perpetual and inevitable. For instance, I hate to admit it, but I know that if someone wrote me a check for $25 million dollars tomorrow, no strings attached, I'd be a different person by the end of the year. I don't think of myself as a selfish, greedy, or excessively unethical person, but there's just too much precedent where the path to power corrupts the individual; it's almost historical fact, although there have been rare exceptions.

    So, solutions... the Million Dollar Question. I don't have a specific answer, but it would seem that a pretty major upheaval is necessary. The current slate must be wiped clean in order to start over new. I do believe in the redistribution of wealth through a series of progressive taxation, but that will never happen, and even if it did, we'd have the same problem in another century or so. However, if that plan ever got serious consideration, it just might cause the sort of revolution that seems to be becoming more and more necessary every day. Bear in mind, I believe in a series of structured revolution and revitalization, not anarchy.

    Utopia isn't possible, but that's the beauty of it; it's a process. People tend to lose sight of the fact that it's the means that matter in this life not the ends.

  • I'd like to think that people will carefully consider the gravity of this research, but that likely will not happen. Again, in order to protect their ego, they'll reassure themselves that this is just another case of jealous liberals attacking those who "have worked so hard to get where they're at." Especially considering the source (Berkeley).

  • Good answer. Honest and pure.

    Now, would you actually accept the 25 mil? Or would you refuse it because you have integrity and actually believe that life is about the journey?

  • I did make an initial disclaimer that I'm in a much easier position to take this stance due to my decidedly middle class status, "Granted, I don’t have much of it (money), so I recognize that this is a highly convenient position to take."

    Yet now I've been tasked with a very difficult hypothetical. Do I believe what I wrote, or do I believe that I'm capable of being the rare exception (i.e. behaving with dignity in grace despite my new found wealth)? I cry foul, good sir!

    I'd take the money and try to be nice to people.

  • I will admit, it is an unfair question. One that is extremely difficult to answer when the check is metaphorical in nature.

  • That was a flippant response, but I can't honestly say that I wouldn't accept a 25 million dollar check without any strings attached. While hypocrisy is a form of dishonesty, I'd rather be a hypocrite than an outright liar.

  • I respect the honesty.

  • It'd be hard to debate, even as I attempt a wealthy person's perspective, that there is not a problem with the divide of wealth in this country and that the problem is not (entirely at the very least) in the power of those inflicted by it to solve. Still, I'm not sure what the solution is.

    I'd like it if a socialist government could work without corruption eeking in and creative drive being destroyed, but it's difficult for me to imagine that happening on a large scale for any length of time, given human flaw.

    Personally, I grew up in an upper middle class family, but being rich and having a lot of things are not really goals of mine. I can't understand why brand names and fancy cars are so important to some people, why people buy things for little other reason but to have purchased the "right" thing, for prestige. So meaningless.

    I've actually did a fair amount of looking into (non religious) communal living myself. I really appreciate the principles of it - shared work, shared resources, access over ownership, social and environmental conscientiousness , self-sufficiency, and a viable alternative to successful living check list society seems to tell us is the only way. I'm not sure if we could ever convince everyone to pursue into that sort of thing though - too different, too scary, requires too much effort and reality. It's not about getting to the top, it's about attempting to take away that concern and so people can focus on more important things, personal and community growth.

  • Upper middle class as well (most years... the rest were lower middle class). Gimme $25M, no string attached, and I know a lot of people who could use a bit of debt relief. Not saying I'd make anyone wealthy, just stop the pain. I'd stop my financial pain too, and maybe even splurge on nice trip. But, to be out of debt and have my friends, coworkers, and as many random strangers as possible out of debt, to create, even if temporarily, an atmosphere where everyone around me is relieved of the tensive nature of carrying loads of debt and free to live their life... that would be worth $25M.

  • I'm gonna hold you to that sprouty!!!

  • No problem. i am dead serious dude. I have no need nor want for anything more than enough to keep my family fed, sheltered, and clothed. Anything more is just a sleep-depriving liability. I also figure that if I'm nice to people, they'll be nice to me. Could be wrong about that, but based on a couple of things that have happened lately, I'm feeling a bit optimistic about the goodness of people when it is really needed.

  • Glad to hear it - all of it. I too like to think that I'd be exceptionally giving with such a sum, but I'd also be darn well sure to stash away 3 or 4 mill for a rainy day. Other than that, no one I know will be in any debt and my siblings and nieces will be going to college for free. Oh, and I'd buy my dog a rad three story doggy mansion.

  • Not saying I'd be stupid with the $25M. Those who I'd be looking to relieve of their debts would have to be reasonably certain they're not just going to splurge and get themselves in debt again in 12 months. We bought our house in foreclosure. People who owned it before us got an inheritance. They bought the land, built the house, bought themselves new trucks, then couldn't back down from the spending lifestyle. Less than a year after building the house, they were in foreclosure. Didn't lose their jobs or anything, just poor decision making skills.

    I'm not saying bankruptcy isn't a valid choice for some people in some situations (job loss, poor financial advice, unexpected debts), but I know people who've declared bankruptcy three times as adults (yes, every 7 years!). Seriously, there's no point with them. One or two years, and they'll be back to buying expensive sneakers they cannot afford and taking dream vacations on credit cards. Three or four years and they'll be cinched tight making minimum payments. Five or six years, they'll stop paying those minimums and start accruing late fees and insane interest. Seven years, they'll file. They've got their debt relief worked out.

    Sorry, but there's no point stopping people who are determined to jump off that cliff. Save the people who didn't realize or are victims of our over-promising, under-delivering society. School debt is one of the most heinous crimes against humanity. I feel for those people too, because I've dealt with it myself. Not down on education in general, but there are too many lies about the job market for the educated. Health debt is unexpected and can quickly strap you into the tedium of job slavery... all in the interest of making a 'non-profit' organization wealthy.

    But, if you and your spouse are working two jobs just to make the payments, living in a luxury condo downtown and driving a matching pair of bmw suvs stuffed with mint vintage comic books and all the latest digital photography gear, sporting the latest north face windbreaker and nordstrom jeans, you're probably not going to get any help from me. Oh, I might buy you lunch while we discuss your financial debacle, but you don't need my help, you need to see a realist.

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