TED Radio Hour
9:28 am
Fri April 4, 2014

Does Money Make You Mean?

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Money Paradox.

About Paul Piff's TEDTalk

Social psychologist Paul Piff describes how wealth changes behavior and how almost anyone's behavior can change when they're made to feel rich.

About Paul Piff

Paul Piff is a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies how wealth — or the lack of wealth — can affect behavior.

His studies include running rigged games of Monopoly, tracking how those who drive expensive cars behave behind the wheel, and even determining that rich people are more likely to take candy from children than the less well-off. He writes, "I have been finding that increased wealth and status in society lead to increased self-focus and, in turn, decreased compassion, altruism, and ethical behavior."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So the way we behave, when it comes to money, includes all kinds of contradictions, right, like being really cautious with our money one day, and then really risky with it on another day or being generous sometimes and then really greedy at other times. And that tension is what led Paul Piff to embark on a very unusual experiment. He's a psychologist at Berkeley.

PAUL PIFF: What I do is study what makes people cooperative and kind toward others versus selfish and greedy.

RAZ: And in a lot of his studies, he asks are rich people meaner than the rest of us?

PIFF: And I've always wanted to run a study on what makes people drive the way that they do.

RAZ: Paul and his colleagues tested an idea that you might already know instinctively, that people who drive really expensive cars are often the biggest jerks on the road.

PIFF: And we actually literally had coders hiding behind bushes coding the kind of cars that were coming down the roadway. So how expensive is this car? And they were coding whether the driver of that car proceeds to stop.

RAZ: This is just some, like, dude from your lab at the crosswalk?

PIFF: Some dude from our lab who's posing as a pedestrian waiting to cross at a crosswalk of a busy roadway.

RAZ: Now this is in California where if you do not stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk, you're breaking the law.

PIFF: And what we found was that 50 percent of those most expensive vehicles broke the law, whereas none, zero, not a single one of those least expensive cars did so.

RAZ: OK, so what does this prove anyway? Well, it turns out you can take almost anyone, put them in a lab, and in just a few minutes, you can make them feel and act like they are both rich and mean. Here's Paul Piff on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PIFF: I want you to, for a moment, think about playing a game of Monopoly, except this game's been rigged, and you've got the upper hand. 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 UC Berkeley campus to look at exactly that question. We brought in more than a hundred pairs of strangers into the lab.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: Is it my roll?

PIFF: You're going to have to pardon the sound quality in some cases because these are hidden cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

SPEAKER #1: I'll buy it.

PIFF: With the flip of a coin, we randomly assigned one of the two to be a rich player in a rigged game.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

SPEAKER #1: I want to build.

PIFF: They got two times as much money. And they got to roll both dice instead of one. So they got to move around the board a lot more.

(LAUGHTER)

PIFF: And just to stick it to the poor player, the rich player gets to move the Rolls-Royce around, which is that really desirable, luxurious piece.

RAZ: Oh yeah.

PIFF: Whereas the poor player has got to move that measly, little shoe. No one wants that piece.

RAZ: Or the thimble. Who likes the thimble?

PIFF: No one wants the thimble.

RAZ: Nobody wants the thimble. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PIFF: The rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece as he went around.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

PIFF: You're more likely to see signs of dominance and displays of power and celebration among the rich players.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

SPEAKER #1: Wait did you get - how many 500's do you have?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: Just one.

SPEAKER #1: Are you serious?

SPEAKER #2: Yeah.

SPEAKER #1: I have three.

PIFF: 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'd inevitably won in this rigged game of monopoly, they talked about what they'd done to buy those different properties and earned their success in the game.

RAZ: So they're, like, I won 'cause I'm awesome.

PIFF: I won because I'm awesome, because I know how to play this game, because I've played this game before.

RAZ: Nobody said I was lucky?

PIFF: A few people said that they got lucky rolls of the dice. But very few people talked about the fact that it was that flip of a coin that got them into that initial position of privilege.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PIFF: 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 deserving this and their ideology of self-interest increases.

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. And we told the participants that they could keep these $10 for themselves or they could share a portion of it with a stranger who's totally anonymous. And we'd just monitor how much people give. Individuals who made $25,000, sometimes under $15,000 a year gave 44 percent more of their money to the stranger than did individuals making $150,000, $200,000 a year.

RAZ: That's unbelievable. I mean, it just seems counterintuitive.

PIFF: Yeah. So for the last 60 or 70 years, there's been a trend that people have documented. Lower-income households give proportionately more of their incomes to charity than higher-income households. So proportionately speaking, the less well-off you are, the more charitable you are.

RAZ: OK, but how does that happen? I mean, how does money change you? Like, say you come into a lot of it when you're like, you know, 50, what would happen?

PIFF: Well, it would, for one, mean that you can afford a different kind of home. Maybe it means you can afford a bigger home where the people in your family would all occupy separate bedrooms. You'll have a bigger yard, potentially, or more space between your house and other people's homes.

When you go to work, you may be less likely to take that bus or that carpool. When you get to work, you may be more likely to have a position of someone who's, say an overseer of other people as opposed to someone who works with one another in teams. And with that sort of increased self-focus, that increased control, you become less attuned to other people in your environment, less cooperative, less ethical, a whole slew of other things.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PIFF: We ran another study were looked at whether people would be inclined to take candy from a jar of candy that we explicitly identified as being reserved for children.

(LAUGHTER)

PIFF: Participating - I'm not kidding. I know it sounds like I'm making a joke. We explicitly told participants this jar of candy is for children participating in the 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.

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. 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.

RAZ: When you think about your own research on this, does, like - is a part of you sort of, like, I don't know, like, disappointed in human behavior?

PIFF: I don't know. You know, disappointment's not necessarily the right word because I think a lot of the effects that we're documenting are understandable. And what's important to recognize is that there are a lot of other things that shape how compassionate and generous a person is - their gender, their ethnicity, the social groups they belong to, how they were raised. Money is one of those factors, but it's not the only one.

RAZ: You know, I think what's interesting about your research is that when he says that we're all basically, like, malleable and rich people are malleable, too, right. I mean, they can change and pretty quickly.

PIFF: Absolutely. Now we found in our own laboratory work, and this has been replicated elsewhere and extended elsewhere, that when we bring wealthy people in and through even small nudges, simple reminders, a reminder of the needs of others, their levels of empathy, compassion and charity go up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

PIFF: In one study, we had people watch a brief video, just 46 seconds long, about childhood poverty. 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, 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. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Paul Piff. He's a social psychologist at the University of California Berkeley. You can check out his entire talk at TED.com. More on the money paradox in a moment. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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