Researcher finds wealth shapes an ideology of self-interest and entitlement

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Donald Trump by Gage SkidmoreClimbing the economic ladder can influence basic psychological processes within an individual.

According to a new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin this month, wealth tends to increase a person’s sense of entitlement, which in turn can lead to narcissistic behaviors.

Paul Piff of the University of California at Berkeley told PsyPost “there is something about wealth that gives rise to a sense of entitlement, a sense that one deserves more good things in life than others, which in turn gives rise to an increased or inflated sense of self-importance, vanity, grandiosity, and omnipotence (narcissism).”

“Narcissism is a multi-faceted and complex construct, but that wealth is specifically associated with it suggests that as a person’s level of privilege rises, that person becomes increasingly self-focused – in a sense, becoming the center of their own world and worldview,” he explained.

“The studies in the paper measure narcissism in a whole host of ways, including measuring how likely someone is to stare at their reflection in a mirror (wealthier people do that more often). Even students who come from wealth, but have done little to create their own wealth (yet), report more entitlement. This suggests that wealth shapes an ideology of self-interest and entitlement that’s transferred culturally from one generation to the next.”

Piff conducted five experiments to investigate the associations between social class, entitlement, and narcissism.

The first experiment consisted of a survey that measured levels of entitlement and socioeconomic status. Piff found higher social class was associated with an increased sense of entitlement. Upper-class individuals were more likely to believe they deserved special treatment and feel entitled to “more of everything.” They were also more likely to believe that if they on the Titanic, they would deserve to be on the first lifeboat.

In the second and third experiments, Piff used other surveys with different measures of entitlement and socioeconomic status to confirm his initial findings.

In the fourth experiment, Piff discovered that upper-class individuals were more likely to look at their own reflections in a mirror, even when controlling for self-consciousness. The final experiment found that exposing upper-class individuals to egalitarian values reduced entitlement and decreased narcissism.

“Lots of important caveats to be aware of, including the fact that we are measuring correlations and averages across groups of people, which means that there are of course many exceptions to the patterns we document,” Piff told PsyPost. “Also, simple interventions can reduce narcissism among the wealthy, suggesting their narcissism is neither innate nor fixed. When wealthier participants in one study were asked to think about three benefits of treating others as equals, they subsequently became less narcissistic. Egalitarian values can reduce narcissism. The implications of this are fairly profound, I think.”

The Berkeley researcher has received a great deal of attention for his studies on how wealth influences behavior. His previous research found upper-class individuals were more likely to lie and cheat when gambling, cut people off when driving, and endorse unethical behavior in the workplace.

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  • Moribund Cadaver

    People respond to their environment. In part, what surrounds us shapes who we are. It has long been traditional to surround the wealthy with a culture and framework that says “you are special, you are grand, you are epic”. People basically enjoy having their egos stroked – even those who otherwise wouldn’t be overly egotistical.

    It is very easy for a human being to become drunk on power. However, the number of wealthy individuals who are extremely philanthropic after being exposed to many realities of life may suggest that a greater ethical framework can be just as easily imprinted on the wealthy.

  • mark abrams

    wealth attracts clingers, sycophants, con men, gold diggers and thieves, Any wealthy person who lacks the self discipline and judgment to overcome incipient narcissism and/or feelings of grandiosity will be rapidly picked clean. The safe locale for narcissists and grandiose egos is politics , see for example Barack Obama.

  • Truthsayer

    It’s the whole idea of “social distance” on display here. Dan Ariely notes that when you talk abut ethics and morals AT ALL, before an Q&A, you respond more egalitarian. Reminding us of our shared core and our shared humanity can change behavior. Living in a bubble almost precludes people from thinking about the world outside of it.