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5 Ways Money May Be Costing You

Studies show that wealth can be detrimental to individuals.

With the widest wealth gap on record between America’s wealthiest families and, well, everyone else, economic inequality is making headlines. History teaches us that concentrated wealth isn’t good for nations, but some recent studies make it clear it’s not good for individuals, either.

Fun Way Illustration/Shutterstock
Source: Fun Way Illustration/Shutterstock

Money can’t buy you love, but data shows that it may cost you your humanity. Research has just barely scratched the surface of the relationship between money and mindset, but what’s come up so far ain’t pretty. We’ll investigate what is lost as the money begins to roll in, and—thankfully—how to hold on to the things money can’t buy.

Let’s start with what money costs us.

Cost #1: Courtesy.

Ever heard this one? What’s the difference between a catfish and a BMW owner? One is a bottom-feeding scum sucker, and the other is a fish. Unfortunately, a 2012 study carried out along a Northern California roadway revealed that BMW owners often live up to this bad reputation. During the study, a researcher repeatedly posed as a pedestrian standing at a crosswalk, ready to cross the street as a car approached.

The good news is that eight out of ten cars stopped for the pedestrian and let him cross. But when the research team created a five-tiered system, with low-value, dilapidated “category 1” cars at the bottom and luxury “category 5” vehicles at the top, like BMWs, a pattern was evident. Every single category 1 car stopped for the pedestrian while almost 50 percent of the category 5 vehicles blew through the crosswalk, leaving the hapless pedestrian in a cloud of exhaust. There has yet to be a study about people who park their car across multiple spots, but I’m willing to bet you know the results already.

Cost #2: Empathy.

A series of studies in the journal Psychological Science found that people of lower socioeconomic status could read others’ expressions and emotions more readily than their wealthier counterparts. In the study, participants were given a picture of a ladder with rungs labeled 1-10 and were asked to self-identify their social class by choosing a corresponding rung. The lowest rungs, they were told, represented “those who are the worst off, have the least education, least money, and least respected jobs or no job.” The highest rungs, by contrast, were “those who are the best off, have the most education, most money, and most respected jobs.”

After self-identifying on the 1-10 ladder, the participants were asked to participate in a hypothetical job interview. The researcher interviewed two participants at a time, asking them standard questions like, “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” Afterwards, each participant rated how strongly they felt a variety of emotions like anger, contempt, sadness, hope, surprise, and worry during the interview.

But then, there was a twist: they were also asked to rate how strongly they thought their counterpart felt each emotion.

The result? Lower-class participants were able to judge the emotions of their interview partner with more accuracy than higher-class participants. While the higher-class participants weren’t entirely oblivious, it was clear that they were less skilled at reading—and empathizing with—the emotions of their fellow human traveler.

Cost #3: Compassion.

Pop-culture often depicts wealthier people as cold-hearted go getters, but how true is this stereotype? While privileged people don’t literally have souls made of ice, another study showed that their heartbeats are different from those of people from humble backgrounds.

In the study, participants were tasked with watching two short videos while connected to a heart rate monitor. One was an instructional video where a woman explained how to build a patio wall, while the other was a documentary clip of kids with cancer going through chemotherapy.

Don’t worry, nobody was a cold-hearted jerk—all the participants reported, on average, feeling five times as much compassion while watching the cancer video as they did while watching the patio video. But there was a correlation between how much compassion they felt and their social class: Lower-class participants reported feeling significantly greater compassion for the kids with cancer than the upper-class participants.

But their lower compassion wasn’t just quantifiable with words. It’s well-established that a slowing heartbeat goes hand in hand with feelings of sympathy and altruism. The theory is that a slower heartbeat is part of the body’s preparation to connect with and tend to someone else. In the study, lower-class participants showed greater heart rate deceleration in response to the cancer video than the more privileged participants, whose heart rates generally remained steady.

Cost #4: Helpfulness.

A study in the uber-prestigious journal Science discovered that simply thinking about money can change a person’s behavior. In the study, participants played Monopoly with a confederate for seven minutes. When the game ended, those in one group were left with $4,000 in Monopoly money and asked to imagine a future in which they were rich, while those in the other group were left with $200 and asked to imagine a future of financial instability. Then participants filled out some bogus forms and got up to leave, thinking the study was over. But it had only just begun.

As each participant began to leave, a researcher carrying a pile of office supplies walked in front of them and accidentally-on-purpose spilled a box of exactly 27 pencils. This was the real test: How many pencils would each person pick up?

The good news: No one sidestepped the mess and strode away. Every single person helped pick up the pencils. However, the group that had been primed with thoughts of wealth picked up significantly fewer. They were helpful, but just not as helpful.

Cost #5: Ethics.

A final study was elegant in its simplicity. Participants were primed to think of themselves as higher-class or lower-class by comparing themselves to others who were at the very top or the very bottom. Then, after filling out some forms as a distraction, they were shown a jar of candy and told it was for kids participating in studies in another lab. Then the researchers simply counted how many candies each participant took. Those who were primed to think of themselves as comparatively wealthy really did take (more) candy from a baby.

Now, why does all this happen? Does affluence equal self-absorption? Do jerks win the race, while nice guys finish last? The jury is still out, but here are some theories on why, in the words of Cyndi Lauper, money changes everything.

One factor may be the mindset of independence versus interdependence. The wealth of rich people makes them relatively independent—they have the resources to do what they need or want without relying on others. They don’t have to carpool with friends to save a few bucks or borrow a dress for their cousin’s wedding. They just take an Uber or buy a new dress. Plus, this independence frees up their time and bandwidth to focus on their own interests rather than those of the people surrounding them.

Second, the mindset of independence and the idea of self-sufficiency are often intertwined. The wealthy believe that because they can take care of themselves, others should do the same, a belief that goes hand-in-hand with being less helpful.

The wealthy also tend to have a greater sense of entitlement—the feeling that you’re inherently deserving of privileges. Combined with greater privacy and the resources to deal with possible consequences down the line, entitlement creates a perfect storm for unethical behavior.

Wealth creates a psychological buffer. It’s not that the well-off are uncaring people, it’s that they don’t have to care. Other people’s suffering is sad, to be sure, but it’s not their problem.

Thankfully, all is not lost. It’s relatively simple to restore people’s sense of community, empathy, and compassion. Remember the study where people were asked to rank themselves on the ladder of 1-10? Subsequent studies found that asking people to picture themselves in relation to those on the bottom rungs magically improved their empathy and accuracy in detecting emotions.

To wrap up, happiness definitely includes comfort and security, but it also requires community, togetherness, and feeling part of something larger than yourself. Indeed, it brings life to the saying, “Some people are so poor, all they have is money.”