If you Google “wealthy people psychology” you’ll find a lot of articles declaring that the “wealthy lack empathy,” the “wealthy are different,” and “rich people are mean.” In fact, a well-researched article in New York magazine dove deep into the relationship between economic status and negative psychological characteristics such as a dearth of empathy, insensitivity to and disregard for other people, the tendency to cheat and even to be a jerk while driving.
The evidence is fairly convincing that people of higher socioeconomic status can be somewhat lacking in the kindness department. And some have rightly pointed out the chicken-or-egg element to the issue: Does being rich make you mean, unfeeling, less humane, or do you need to have these characteristics in the first place, to help you climb the ladder? And even more pertinent is the question of whether rich people can cultivate more positive psychological traits, at least in their personal lives. That is, can we learn to be nicer?
One might speculate that the connection goes both ways – that certain characteristics are needed to achieve wealth, but that wealth itself has some distinct (read: negative) effects on a person once he or she has “made it.” But it’s very difficult to get at why these phenomena exist. In some ways, the links seem counterintuitive: The rich should be kinder, more giving, and more empathetic, since, after all, they have it good. Even though it may have taken a lot of work to get where they are, they’re essentially the lucky ones – so they should be grateful for it and nice to everyone as a result. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work that way, if you look at the vast literature on the subject.
One issue is that certain psychological biases seem to be at play: For example, some have argued that the “self-serving attribution bias” may make rich people less likely to see the role that luck plays in their rise to the top, so they credit their own work – and only their own work – for their rise. On the other hand, the “fundamental attribution error” may also make them more likely to believe that the lot of the less fortunate (poor) is not due to luck, but to tangible mistakes that the less fortunate have made. These phenomena may in part explain why as wealth increases, the tendency to be charitable does not rise along with it.
Going back to the chicken-or-egg issue, it may be more likely that the negative psychological traits that are linked with the rich may have been present all along, or at least honed for the purposes of ladder-climbing, and it’s actually these qualities that get people to the top. After all, it takes a lot of elbowing to make your way up.
“In order to gain that monetary wealth,” says Dr. Reef Karim of the Control Center in Beverly Hills, “and to move up in the world, this often requires manipulation, a high focus on financial means, and relationships with others that are agenda-based. What do I have to do? What can I get of out this relationship?” Dr. Karim has treated a virtual who’s who list of celebrities, politicians, and royalty, for everything from addiction to, well, just dealing with the psychological fallout of being rich. “The issue is that these attitudes can bleed over into other areas of your life.”
That’s really the crux of the problem: The same personality traits that can foster business success and wealth can damage other areas of one’s life. “When you massage that money-making muscle for so long, it doesn’t go away,” says Dr. Karim. “It informs all of your relationships. CEOs of big companies have some of the most sociopathic traits – this is quite well-illustrated – because it’s those personality traits lend themselves so well to business. But the down side is that they’re very hard to shut off, and they can destroy your ability to have healthy relationships.”
The other issue is that many of the studies on wealth and psychology don’t seem to address is a basic one: That one’s past has an awful lot to do with one’s present psychological state, money or not. “We always talk about Attachment Theory: How you were raised, whether you were neglected or doted on, whether there was a ton of conflict. But you need to add to this your family’s attitudes toward wealth, because this will influence your attitude now. Were you given everything growing up? Was money viewed as something always going to be there? Were you manipulated by money? If so, you’re going to view the world as money-based.” And this can pose major problems for people socially and psychologically.
There is, luckily, some evidence that empathy can be learned and developed over time, particularly through methods like meditation and mindfulness. Dr. Karim has found that experiential methods like these work better than talk-therapy (unless you have a real “Aha” moment through talking, which can certainly happen, he says). He works with very wealthy people using mindfulness and other means to develop the empathy “muscle,” while intentionally allowing the old wealthy-ladder-climbing muscle to atrophy.
“A surprising number of very wealthy people don’t have the kind of driving motivation you’d think they would have, and which could lead to incredible charity work and empathy toward others. It’s sort of a psychological paralysis due to money. Money can cripple you. In the end, it’s all about being human. It sounds cliché but it’s true: Happiness is not about money. The more we can bond with each other and connect with other people’s plights, the happier we are.”
Source Credits: Alice G. Walton in Forbes