Does Money Make You Mean?

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I was listening to the TED Radio Hour on NPR the other day and came across a great podcast.  This was an episode that discussed how money can make you mean.  It was dealing with the TED talk by Paul Piff, who is a social psychologist. Just listening to this episode made me think about money and how it really can make you mean.  Here is some brief information about what he did in his experiments and what they learned.  I am also including the entire 16 minute TED talk in case you want to take a listen.

The Rigged Monopoly Game

This was one of the best experiments that Paul’s group did. Who doesn’t love the game of Monopoly?  Yes, it is entirely too long, but this game is all about money.  You make the right decision and you have money, but if you make the wrong decision, you will lose money.

In their experiment, they took two people in for a 15-minute game of Monopoly.  They had rigged the game to instantly make one player rich and one player poor.  This was just done by a flip of a coin.  As the game was played, they found the rich players would start to make their perceived richness apparent to the other player.  They would move their game pieces around the board while banging each block loudly.  They would count their money and indicate how much cash they had. They would mock the other player based on the amount of money they had.  It was fascinating.

The best part of the experiment came when it ended. They asked each rich player how they felt they played the game.  Not once did they indicate that they were lucky, which was exactly what they were.  They told the researchers they did well because they bought this property or that property.  Their answers were all about what they did to win, not about luck.

The Expensive Car Experiment

I enjoyed this one too. It is harder to deduce why this is happening, but here is what they did.  They had a person at a crosswalk trying to get across the street.  They did this experiment in California where it is illegal not to stop for a pedestrian trying to cross at a crosswalk.

They tracked cars at different crosswalks and different times of day.  They classified the cars based on cost tiers.  What they found was pretty crazy.  In the least expensive car tier, 0% of the cars broke the law.  This means that all of the cars in the least expensive tier stopped for the pedestrian.  As the price of vehicle rose, so did the percentage of people breaking the law. At the most expensive tier, they found that 50% of drivers broke the law.  I find that fascinating.

The Idea Behind this TED Talk

The premise behind this talk was to show that as wealth increases, people tend to become more self-entitled and lose empathy and compassion for others.  They illustrated this by talking about giving.  People in the lower income tiers tend to give way more than those in the upper income tiers.  People that have a lower wealth status care more for others than those with higher wealth.  It basically comes down to money making you mean.  As your wealth increases, you focus more on yourself. You work harder to increase your wealth and make sure that you are on top.  They even found that people with more wealth condone more unethical behavior compared to those with little wealth.

Here is the full TED Talk to listen to. I hope you find it as fascinating as I did.



What do you think about this concept?  Does money make you mean?  Are the wealthy in it for themselves? Have they lost their compassion for others?



Photo courtesy of: Dave Hamster

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Grayson is the owner of Debt Roundup and Empowered Shopper. He also co-owns Sprout Wealth and Eyes on the Dollar. After going to battle and winning against consumer debt, he decided it was time to learn how to use credit wisely and grow his wealth. He discusses all things personal finance and is not afraid of being controversial. He also is a freelance writer and blog manager.

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  • I heard a quote the other day that said “Money doesn’t change us, it amplifies us.” and I really think this is true. I used to be very afraid of having money because I thought it would turn us into jerks, but I’ve found now that often times those with lots of money who are “showy” are jerks, and those similar to people portrayed in The Millionaire Next Door, the ones who still live an average lifestyle but are rich, are some of the sweetest, kindest, most humble people I know. Money doesn’t change us, it amplifies us.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      That is a good quote Laurie. I just really enjoy studies like this to see what money does to people.

    • Derek @ MoneyAhoy says:

      I agree with this completely. It’s almost like the “force” in Starwars. The right way is to earn money responsibly and legally. Many times, folks are lured into the “dark side” of trying to make a quick buck by screwing other people. This type of behavior is shown in other parts of their life like stopping for pedestrians…

  • I don’t believe money is what makes people mean. Money does reveal who we are on the inside though. Show me how a person spends money and I’ll have a pretty good idea what they value. If they use it only for personal gain then I’ll know they are pretty selfish on the inside.

  • I think there is definitely a risk of becoming ‘mean’ when you accumulate more and more money. I know I’ve seen this with income as well. The higher income someone has, the more likely they are to have an attitude about them. You have to make an effort to be humble as your income and assets increase. I should point out I know some people who are very wealthy who are the nicest people I know and who I love being around.

  • Catherine says:

    Really interesting. Im going to listen to that TED talks when I have a few mins. I’m curious, in the car situation what makes such a big difference. Great post Grayson, thanks for sharing!

  • I didn’t need a study on Monopoly to tell me that the guy with the cash acts like a jerk. I do that all of the time when I play haha!! I also act surprised when someone lands on my property that has 40 hotels on it. But, before I get branded a complete jerk, I do stop at crosswalks to let people cross (but I do rev the engine – just kidding!!)

  • It’s probably that the people who drive more expensive cars are more likely to be in debt up to their eyeballs and are racing to get to their job (that they may not even like) so they can get paid and make all their payments. Ouch, I’m guess I’m feeling really cynical right now! I know that’s a horrible over-generalization… but I can’t help but wonder if it’s true for some folks.

  • I think that is certainly true for some people but not all. When you work hard to become wealthy and don’t forget how hard you worked then I think it is less likely to act in that manner. At least I like to give most people the benefit of the doubt.

  • I think the car experiment is more telling than the Monopoly game one. I find it difficult to attribute winning Monopoly as being related to money and not just plain winning. People like to gloat and flaunt when they win – doesn’t have anything to do with money. They should have had the players play a non-money related board game to see if it produced the same reactions.

    The car experiment is more insightful. It’s more easy to draw conclusions such as people who drive more expensive cars probably feel more entitled and that they are “better” than others around them with lesser modes of transportation (like walking!).

  • I think this is a great question, and I don’t think that money necessarily makes someone “mean,” however, I definitely know that it alters the trajectory of your life and it is very difficult to know how it might impact you until it happens. It’s like a chemical reaction, A+B does not always equal C because there are other components to a person (A) other than how much money (B) they have like how they grew up, their friends, their neighbors, their work environment that are all a part of the chemical formula. So it is really more like A+B+C+D+E= a person’s personality type.

  • Ted Talks are always interesting and thought provoking. I see Laurie and Brian’s point about money just amplifying who you are, but I also think that money can affect you negatively. Money can corrupt your mind sometimes…many rich people lose empathy and compassion and feel self-entitled because that is the life they get to lead. They don’t see things from a different perspective which changes your mindset. Not everyone will succumb to the power of money, but many will.

  • I love this kind of stuff, Grayson. I will definitely have to listen to the TED talk as it sounds fascinating. I have certainly seen how money can bring out the worst in people, although I think the “worst” was always in them but having money just made it more apparent. Money can also bring out the best in people too, but just like the “worst” – I suspect money merely amplified the good. I do believe – right or wrong – society tends to associate money with power and that people with money can get away with bad behavior.

  • E.M. says:

    This is pretty interesting. I have some friends that love to be obnoxious when playing games as they’re very competitive. I tend to agree that money tends to highlighs traits and doesn’t create them. I have to admit that I do notice the drivers of expensive cars being more reckless than others, though. They don’t use their blinkers as much, cut people off and basically act entitled on the road. I guess material possessions can go to people’s heads!

  • Michelle says:

    Winning at Monopoly or Life is the best thing ever. I’m pretty competitive, especially playing against my husband so I totally would have been the braggers in the first experiment. Fortunately, I have no money to do this in real life, so I do not act like this on a daily basis!

  • I remember someone else talking about this TED video. I don’t think money makes you meaner, but maybe if you are mean and poor no one is really paying attention, but if you look wealthily people notice it more? I think it really just depends on the individual.

  • Great topic! I would agree with most of the other comments that money in and of itself isn’t the problem, it is the sense of power and entitlement that it gives us that can lead to huge problems and yes, to being mean. It’s very similar to power. Most of us would never do certain reprehensible things to others, but studies also show that when we are given high levels of power people do many things they wouldn’t normally do. I think it is good to realize that our environment has a bigger influence on us than we normally realize.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      Great comment Kathy. I do think that you could say it makes you mean because if no one ever saw those traits in someone before, then that is how you would classify it.

  • Kim says:

    I don’t think money makes you mean, but I can see how some very driven and ruthless people might be more inclined to wealth in some cases. I think greed can certainly consume a person as can the stress lifestyle inflation that makes you feel you have to earn more and more money and there is never enough. That could certainly make you mean or at least have a short fuse. I also think that uber rich people have so many yes men around that they lose their sense of reality because no one ever tells them no. I think that’s why so many professional athletes or show business types get into legal trouble eventually. Or maybe really expensive cars just have so many gadgets that it’s distracting and they don’t pay attention to pedestrians! I hope that someday I am wealthy and nice and drive an old beater car that stops for all people crossing the street.

  • I tend to agree with the above comments saying that money really only amplifies what was already there. A-holes are a-holes, and when you give them money it just becomes easier to spot them. There is a predisposition and money has a way of revealing it quickly. I can also see how over time some can become more entitled with money, but that just makes me respect even more those wealthy individuals I have met that are genuinely humble and kind.

  • I agree about the amplification comments, as well. I also think that more eyes of are someone with money and perhaps their actions are more visible. Those money-related Ted Talks were super interesting. I’ve been meaning to go back and listen to all of them. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Very interesting. I don’t think money makes you mean, but I do agree that money can “expose” or amplify mean-spiritedness like Laurie and others have said. A mean person with a lot of money can use that money to influence others in negative ways.

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