5 Ways Being Rich Messes Up Your Mind (According To Science)
It's a fact: rich people are assholes. What? We're dehumanizing the wealthy, you say? A couple things to that: One, you might want to bill them if you're going to be their PR person -- and two, how can that be dehumanizing? Nothing is more human than being a colossal douchebag!
In fact, it's because they are human that wealth has this effect on them -- the same thing would likely happen to you or me if we stumbled across a few millions. This isn't some Postmodernist Commie SJW Cultural-Marxist take -- there's science to it, and we'll show it to you.
Wealth is Addictive
Consider Jeff Bezos -- net worth, over $180 billion. For the average Amazon employee to save that much, they'd have to be with the company since about the time humans learned to make fire (and you know Amazon wasn't around back then, because you don't have to pay for a subscription service to roast marshmallows). He's estimated to make $78.5 billion a year -- he could give each of his 800,000 employees a Tesla every Christmas, and he'd still have enough left over to be as filthy rich as filthy rich can be. (You don't need to believe us -- you can do the math yourself.) Then why does he crap on his workers instead, just to save what amounts to pocket change to him? Also, for several years in a row, Amazon paid no income taxes despite reporting astronomical earnings. That's right -- Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, paid zero taxes. He paid 0 taxes. That's as much as no taxes at all.
We aren't inside of Bezos' hairless coconut to know why he does any of this, but maybe Sam Polk can give us a clue. Polk is a former Wall Street trader who has written about his past obsession with money like it was an addiction:
"Ever see what a drug addict is like when he's used up his junk? He'll do anything -- walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma -- to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in 'The Wire' when the heroin runs out."
"Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation -- including an $8.5 million bonus -- as the McDonald's C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary."
This isn't just some guy talking -- moolah's way of getting you hooked has been studied scientifically. Research using magnetic resonance imaging shows that money activates the brain's reward system in the same way as food or sex. And it's been known since the late '70s that the pain of losing something is greater than the joy of gaining it -- so if you earn, say, $1,000 and then lose $600, you're now $400 better off than before, but your stupid brain still feels bad. Now it needs more of the stuff that made it happy to stop feeling shitty.
Well, at least none of the people with these cravings have the power to lobby Congress and run for office, right?
Being Rich Makes You A Worse Person
If wealth works like a drug, what effect does it have? Pot mellows you out, speed puts you in overdrive, and coke makes you off-putting and yell a lot -- so what does greenbackaine do to you?
Well, we already told you, didn't we? It turns you into an asshole. You might feel like arguing it, and we understand that, but there's something that can't be disputed: The Wuzzles was the best cartoon ever. You're certain to agree if you ever saw it as a child -- and the episode where Bumblelion becomes an (even worse) insufferable dick because now he is rich kicks ass. We aren't exactly breaking into new territory if a children's show went there three decades ago, are we?
Indeed, the rich bastard who cares more about money than people is a character as old as literature. But we aren't experts, so maybe we aren't using the right words. We'll let psychologist Paul Piff himself take it from here:
"While having money doesn't necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."
So yeah, "asshole" is the technical term. Don't blame us. Blame Piff.
Piff is kind of an authority in riches-driven jerkassitude. In an experiment, he sat random people to play a computer game involving dice, the winner getting a $50 gift certificate. But the game was rigged, so everyone got the same score -- it was impossible to win without cheating. Can you guess who was more likely to cheat? Here's a hint: It wasn't those who needed 50 bucks.
Piff's findings are disturbingly consistent. He found that cheaper cars always stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, while high-end cars only do it half of the time. (Good thing the most popular luxury cars in America right now are built like goddamn tanks.) All this well-documented asswipery aligns pretty well with the pointlessly petty stuff some rich do in the wild -- like accusing a guy of pedophilia, or framing a different guy as a mass shooter, just because you don't like them. Or posting fanart on Twitter and then actively refusing to credit the artist. Or taking candy from children. Yeah, we're cheating ourselves here (even though we aren't rich enough to blame it on affluenza): the first three are all Elon Musk, but the last one is C. Montgomery Burns, who is fictional. No one would be such a huge asshat in real li-- wait, what? There's more to the study?
Money Blunts You To Pain
We hesitate to remind you of Martin Shkreli -- no, wait, why are you punching your own screen? Yes, Shkreli might have a smug mug that seems to invite your knuckles, but other than that, he isn't an outlier -- the entire pharma industry runs on price gouging (we recently told you about Gilead's treatment for COVID-19). "Why yes," some random pharma head might say, "I care about other people's suffering. I care a lot. It's giving me the chance to buy a second beach house in Malibu! No, wait -- make that three beach houses! #SelfCare."
But dough doesn't just render you callous to the misery around you. It also blunts you to your own pain -- not only emotional, but also physical. Kathleen Vohs, a marketing teacher with a background in psychology, found that people exposed to paper money reported less pain when they were excluded from group activities or dipped their hands in extremely hot water. Vohs draws a conclusion we can totally get behind: When a company screws up, they should refund you in cash to ease your righteous anger. Not vouchers, not credit -- cash. Neat piles of bills you can count and satisfyingly stuff into your pocket. Only that has the required soothing properties.
And you know what? Under some conditions, the bills don't even need to be real.
Even Pretend Money Has An Effect
You may have noticed this already, but currency isn't exactly a drug. You don't smoke it, pop it, shoot it, or sniff it. (A ridiculous amount of bills are used to snort coke, but that's a completely different issue.) There isn't some magical money molecule that turns Doctor Broke-yll into Mr. Hyde-Millions-In-A-Tax-Haven -- rather, it's the idea of money that changes you.
The same Kathleen Vohs who was just plunging hands in hot water ran a test exposing subjects to pictures of money. She found that simply being reminded that money is a thing that exists leads you to work harder on challenging tasks (like, say, creating Facebook), but also you tend to isolate yourself and become unhelpful (like the creator of Facebook). Oh, and that "taking candy from children" business we mentioned earlier? It wasn't even about rich people -- it was about people who had been primed into thinking of themselves as high- or low-class. That's the beautiful, equal-opportunity nature of all this: You don't need tons of money to become a douchecanoe -- it's enough to imagine that you have tons of money. How else would you get poor people voting for tax cuts for the rich, or leaving angry comments on this article? Probably no one put this better than world-famous economic eminence Philip J. Fry:
Remember Paul Piff, that guy from a couple entries back? The one who likes rigging games? He also rigged a game of Monopoly (well, more like 100) so that the rules were unfairly skewed towards one of the players, who also started out with a lot more money than the other. In short, Piff took a board game created to illustrate how screwed up capitalism is (before capitalism made it its own) and added an extra layer of gritty realism.
You can already guess where this is going, can you? There are no surprises or plot twists in this story. As the game went on, the "rich" player would act like a complete dick, smacking the board with their piece and making fun of the other player's broke ass as they took all their fake bills. They could clearly see something was off with the game that gave them an unfair edge -- and yet the winner would end up boasting about their wise investments and their superior Monopolying skills. Sadly, we have no info on whether anyone mentioned any bootstraps.
Luckily, It Isn't Permanent
If by now you're worrying that you might ever strike it rich and become an obnoxious shithead, we have good news for you: You'll never strike it rich. What? Why are you looking at us like that? It's true for 99 out of 100 people reading this -- there's a reason why it's called "the one percent," you know.
That isn't the only good news, though. Remember when we said there wasn't a plot twist in this story? Plot twist: There is! And like all good plot twists, the hints were there all along: If you become shittier when you imagine yourself as rich, you can reverse the polarity and make the rich less shitty by having them imagine themselves as poorer.
Wait, is that all? No, of course it damn isn't. That isn't all at all. We wish we could solve structural inequality, but we're only a humble comedy site about dick jokes. But it's a good thing that hard cash isn't a hard drug -- getting hooked on it is already scary enough. These junkies don't need to raid your wallet, because they control what goes into your wallet in the first place. They'll never steal and sell your TV -- in part because they're the ones who made your TV and sold it to you (after deciding how much you should pay for it), but also because they're already stealing and selling your privacy (sometimes through your TV). Hell, we're talking people who'd have the world become unlivable sooner than earn less money. Cracked's legal department warns us against advocating for the traditional treatment for rich people's heads, but we're sure happy that their heads can be treated somehow.
And you know what works even better than imagining not being wealthy? Seeing people who aren't wealthy. Seeing them every freakin' day. Taking the bus, sending your children to public schools, having neighbors who aren't other rich jerks. Just look at charismatic concocter of creepiness Stephen King, worth $500 million and yet very much not a shithead.
King doesn't just donate to charity, but also thinks that the rich (himself included) should pay much higher taxes, benefiting everyone. Could that be related to the fact that he chooses to live in Bangor, Maine and not Beverly Hills, California? Well, we can't know that -- but the answer is yes.
Sheesh, who'd have thought that the best medicine for assholism was to see other people as, well, people? As it turns out, being reminded that others are just as human as you, and that their needs and wants matter as much as yours, helps lessen the hunger. You know what hunger we're talking about -- that overwhelming urge to hoard every penny you can lay your greedy paws on, and screw everyone else.
Andres Diplotti apologizes to dragons everywhere for this article. His personal website is diplotti.com
Top image: jesterpop/Shutterstock