The Influence of Affluence
"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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.