The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Success Means Never Having to Say You Are Sorry

Those who have received much expect even more

The psychology of successful people recently took a hit from researchers. From drivers of sports cars who break the lights to wealthy business people pigging out on the company dime, successful selfishness has an ugly face.

The financial services industry engaged in such reckless gambling that they brought the world financial system to its knees. When they had time to reflect on the enormity of their mistakes, they awarded themselves huge annual bonuses.

Recent history is chock full of episodes of out-of-control greed and its destructive social consequences. Physicians and hospitals enjoy a legal monopoly and charge the maximum that the market will bear for their services. American pay twice as much for health care as other developed countries but end up with much worse health outcomes.

Students today pay about six times as much for their college education as they paid a quarter century ago (1). Needless to say, their education is not six times better and could even be worse. 

Corporate officers influence their own compensation committees. This is a license to steal and CEOs of large companies have raised their own pay to astronomical levels some 263 times the salary of an average worker last year which compares to a ratio of 42 in 1980. Such fraudulent conduct harms everyone because it creates inequality that ruins our quality of life. 

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Salaries this inflated produce a hereditary elite class. They also occur against a backdrop of stagnant worker wages that depresses the economy. A period of greatly increased productivity in the U.S. economy produced minimal returns for stock holders. This means that corporate officers are bleeding their companies dry.

Inequality harms everyone

Contrary to laissez faire conservatives, huge accumulations of wealth are bad for everyone. That conclusion leaps from the pages of The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2). High levels of income inequality detract from the quality of life for all residents of a country, even the privileged elite themselves who are obliged to live behind walls protected by guards and alarm systems. Inequality is stressful and undermines trust.

Wilkinson and Pickett found that if country has very unequal distribution of income, it also has severe problems with health, crime, education, and, reduced social mobility. 

They state:

Greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status. Instead of accepting each other as equals on the basis of our common humanity as we might in more equal settings, getting the measure of others becomes more important as status differences widen. We come to see social position as a more important feature of a person’s identity. Between strangers, it may often be the dominant feature. p. 43

Along with increased anxiety levels, more unequal societies undermine social trust and generate high levels of crime, violence, and mental illness and lose their effectiveness in education. They also suffer from higher levels of obesity and have notably reduced life expectancy (2).

The new psychology of success

Social scientists used to focus on how economic disadvantage increases criminal offending and social problems. Now they are looking through the other end of the telescope and have begun to ask what undeserved success and wealth do to the recipients.

Based on a combination of field studies and lab experiments, they are unearthing some rather disturbing results (3). When people win unfairly in a rigged monopoly game, they tend to feel that their success is deserved and also feel entitled to further freebies. Success gives people the sense that they are above the law so that they engage in horribly irresponsible driving. 

Perhaps the most disturbing result from this line of research is that people who are made to feel wealthy by winning at monopoly not only look down on their hapless opponents but generally experience a decline in empathy for other people (4).

So they are in the best possible situation of believing (incorrectly) that they deserve their success, that they are superior to other people and do not need to obey laws. They can be obnoxiously rude, they can break laws. They do not have to be concerned about the needs of the little people. Success means never having to say you are sorry.

 

Sources

1. Odland, S. (2012, March 24). College costs out of control. Forbes.

2. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

3. Piff, P. K. et al. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Accademy of Sciences, 109, 4086-4091.

4. Miller, L. (2012, July 1). The money-empathy gap. New York Magazine.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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