It’s amazing what a rigged game of Monopoly can reveal. In this entertaining but sobering talk, social psychologist Paul Piff shares his research into how people behave when they feel wealthy. (Hint: badly.) But while the problem of inequality is a complex and daunting challenge, there’s good news too. (Filmed at TEDxMarin.)
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I want you to, for a moment, think about playing a game of Monopoly, except in this game, that combination of skill, talent and luck that help earn you success in games, as in life, has been rendered irrelevant, because this game’s been rigged, and you’ve got the upper hand.
You’ve got more money, more opportunities to move around the board, and more access to resources. And as you think about that experience, I want you to ask yourself, how might that experience of being a privileged player in a rigged game change the way that you think about yourself and regard that other player?
So we ran a study on the U.C. Berkeley campus to look at exactly that question. We brought in more than 100 pairs of strangers into the lab, and with the flip of a coin randomly assigned one of the two to be a rich player in a rigged game. They got two times as much money. When they passed Go, they collected twice the salary, and they got to roll both dice instead of one, so they got to move around the board a lot more.
And over the course of 15 minutes, we watched through hidden cameras what happened. And what I want to do today, for the first time, is show you a little bit of what we saw. You’re going to have to pardon the sound quality, in some cases, because again, these were hidden cameras. So we’ve provided subtitles. Rich Player: How many 500s did you have? Poor Player: Just one.
Rich Player: Are you serious. Poor Player: Yeah.
Rich Player: I have three. I don’t know why they gave me so much.
Paul Piff: Okay, so it was quickly apparent to players that something was up. One person clearly has a lot more money than the other person, and yet, as the game unfolded, we saw very notable differences and dramatic differences begin to emerge between the two players. The rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece as he went around. We were more likely to see signs of dominance and nonverbal signs, displays of power and celebration among the rich players.
We had a bowl of pretzels positioned off to the side. It’s on the bottom right corner there. That allowed us to watch participants’ consummatory behavior. So we’re just tracking how many pretzels participants eat.
Rich Player: Are those pretzels a trick?
Poor Player: I don’t know.
PP: Okay, so no surprises, people are onto us. They wonder what that bowl of pretzels is doing there in the first place. One even asks, like you just saw, is that bowl of pretzels there as a trick? And yet, despite that, the power of the situation seems to inevitably dominate, and those rich players start to eat more pretzels.
Rich Player: I love pretzels.
PP: And as the game went on, one of the really interesting and dramatic patterns that we observed begin to emerge was that the rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person, less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success, more likely to showcase how well they’re doing. Rich Player: I have money for everything. Poor Player: How much is that? Rich Player: You owe me 24 dollars. You’re going to lose all your money soon. I’ll buy it. I have so much money. I have so much money, it takes me forever. Rich Player 2: I’m going to buy out this whole board. Rich Player 3: You’re going to run out of money soon. I’m pretty much untouchable at this point.
PP: Okay, and here’s what I think was really, really interesting, is that at the end of the 15 minutes, we asked the players to talk about their experience during the game. And when the rich players talked about why they had inevitably won in this rigged game of Monopoly – they talked about what they’d done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game, and they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation, including that flip of a coin that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place. And that’s a really, really incredible insight into how the mind makes sense of advantage.
Now this game of Monopoly can be used as a metaphor for understanding society and its hierarchical structure, wherein some people have a lot of wealth and a lot of status, and a lot of people don’t. They have a lot less wealth and a lot less status and a lot less access to valued resources. And what my colleagues and I for the last seven years have been doing is studying the effects of these kinds of hierarchies.
What we‘ve been finding across dozens of studies and thousands of participants across this country is that as a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases. In surveys, we found that it’s actually wealthier individuals who are more likely to moralize greed being good, and that the pursuit of self-interest is favorable and moral. Now what I want to do today is talk about some of the implications of this ideology self-interest, talk about why we should care about those implications, and end with what might be done.
Some of the first studies that we ran in this area looked at helping behavior, something social psychologists call pro-social behavior. And we were really interested in who’s more likely to offer help to another person, someone who’s rich or someone who’s poor. In one of the studies, we bring in rich and poor members of the community into the lab and give each of them the equivalent of 10 dollars.
We told the participants that they could keep these 10 dollars for themselves, or they could share a portion of it, if they wanted to, with a stranger who is totally anonymous. They’ll never meet that stranger and the stranger will never meet them. And we just monitor how much people give. Individuals who made 25, 000 sometimes under 15, 000 dollars a year, gave 44 percent more of their money to the stranger than did individuals making 150, 000 or 200, 000 dollars a year.
We’ve had people play games to see who’s more or less likely to cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize. In one of the games, we actually rigged a computer so that die rolls over a certain score were impossible. You couldn’t get above 12 in this game, and yet, the richer you were, the more likely you were to cheat in this game to earn credits toward a $50 cash prize, sometimes by three to four times as much.
We ran another study where we looked at whether people would be inclined to take candy from a jar of candy that we explicitly identified as being reserved for children – I’m not kidding. I know it sounds like I’m making a joke. We explicitly told participants this jar of candy’s for children participating in a developmental lab nearby. They’re in studies. This is for them. And we just monitored how much candy participants took. Participants who felt rich took two times as much candy as participants who felt poor.
We’ve even studied cars, not just any cars, but whether drivers of different kinds of cars are more or less inclined to break the law. In one of these studies, we looked at whether drivers would stop for a pedestrian that we had posed waiting to cross at a crosswalk.
Now in California, as you all know, because I’m sure we all do this, it’s the law to stop for a pedestrian who’s waiting to cross. So here’s an example of how we did it. That’s our confederate off to the left posing as a pedestrian. He approaches as the red truck successfully stops. In typical California fashion, it’s overtaken by the bus who almost runs our pedestrian over.
Now here’s an example of a more expensive car, a Prius, driving through, and a BMW doing the same. So we did this for hundreds of vehicles on several days, just tracking who stops and who doesn’t. What we found was that as the expensiveness of a car increased, the driver’s tendencies to break the law increased as well. None of the cars, none of the cars in our least expensive car category broke the law.
Close to 50 percent of the cars in our most expensive vehicle category broke the law. We’ve run other studies finding that wealthier individuals are more likely to lie in negotiations, to endorse unethical behavior at work like stealing cash from the cash register, taking bribes, lying to customers.
Now I don’t mean to suggest that it’s only wealthy people who show these patterns of behavior. Not at all. In fact, I think that we all, in our day-to-day, minute-by-minute lives, struggle with these competing motivations of when, or if, to put our own interests above the interests of other people. And that’s understandable because the American dream is an idea in which we all have an equal opportunity to succeed and prosper, as long as we apply ourselves and work hard, and a piece of that means that sometimes, you need to put your own interests above the interests and well-being of other people around you.
But what we’re finding is that, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to pursue a vision of personal success, of achievement and accomplishment, to the detriment of others around you. Here I’ve plotted for you the mean household income received by each fifth and top five percent of the population over the last 20 years. In 1993, the differences between the different quintiles of the population, in terms of income, are fairly egregious. It’s not difficult to discern that there are differences. But over the last 20 years, that significant difference has become a grand canyon of sorts between those at the top and everyone else. In fact, the top 20 percent of our population own close to 90 percent of the total wealth in this country. We’re at unprecedented levels of economic inequality.
What that means is that wealth is not only becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a select group of individuals, but the American dream is becoming increasingly unattainable for an increasing majority of us. And if it’s the case, as we’ve been finding, that the wealthier you are, the more entitled you feel to that wealth, and the more likely you are to prioritize your own interests above the interests of other people, and be willing to do things to serve that self-interest, well then there’s no reason to think that those patterns will change. In fact, there’s every reason to think that they’ll only get worse, and that’s what it would look like if things just stayed the same, at the same linear rate, over the next 20 years.
Now, inequality, economic inequality, is something we should all be concerned about, and not just because of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but because individuals and groups with lots of economic inequality do worse, not just the people at the bottom, everyone. There’s a lot of really compelling research coming out from top labs all over the world showcasing the range of things that are undermined as economic inequality gets worse.
Social mobility, things we really care about, physical health, social trust, all go down as inequality goes up. Similarly, negative things in social collectives and societies, things like obesity, and violence, imprisonment, and punishment, are exacerbated as economic inequality increases. Again, these are outcomes not just experienced by a few, but that resound across all strata of society. Even people at the top experience these outcomes.
So what do we do? This cascade of self-perpetuating, pernicious, negative effects could seem like something that’s spun out of control, and there’s nothing we can do about it, certainly nothing we as individuals could do. But in fact, we’ve been finding in our own laboratory research that small psychological interventions, small changes to people’s values, small nudges in certain directions, can restore levels of egalitarianism and empathy.
For instance, reminding people of the benefits of cooperation, or the advantages of community, cause wealthier individuals to be just as egalitarian as poor people. In one study, we had people watch a brief video, just 46 seconds long, about childhood poverty that served as a reminder of the needs of others in the world around them, and after watching that, we looked at how willing people were to offer up their own time to a stranger presented to them in the lab who was in distress.
After watching this video, an hour later, rich people became just as generous of their own time to help out this other person, a stranger, as someone who’s poor, suggesting that these differences are not innate or categorical, but are so malleable to slight changes in people’s values, and little nudges of compassion and bumps of empathy.
And beyond the walls of our lab, we’re even beginning to see signs of change in society. Bill Gates, one of our nation’s wealthiest individuals, in his Harvard commencement speech, talked about the problem facing society of inequality as being the most daunting challenge, and talked about what must be done to combat it, saying, “Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”
And there’s the Giving Pledge, in which more than 100 of our nation’s wealthiest individuals are pledging half of their fortunes to charity. And there’s the emergence of dozens of grassroots movements, like We are the One Percent, the Resource Generation, or Wealth for Common Good, in which the most privileged members of the population, members of the one percent and elsewhere, people who are wealthy, are using their own economic resources, adults and youth alike, that’s what’s most striking to me, leveraging their own privilege, their own economic resources, to combat inequality by advocating for social policies, changes in social values, and changes in people’s behavior, that work against their own economic interests but that may ultimately restore the American dream.