Psychology’s “Dark Triad” and the Billionaire Class

The super-rich aren't the role models we need to advance the common good.

Posted Oct 25, 2019

Roy Eidelson
Source: Roy Eidelson

They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

The Outrage of Billionaires

The data are stark and compelling. The richest 400 families in the United States own financial assets that exceed the wealth of the bottom 60% of all American households combined. U.S. billionaires pay taxes at a lower effective rate than working class families. The CEOs of S&P 500 companies, averaging over $14 million in annual compensation, make roughly as much in a single day as their median employee earns in an entire year. At the same time, research shows that such extreme inequality between rich and poor is a driving force behind many of society’s most profound and corrosive ills. These disparities are associated with diminished levels of physical health, mental health, educational achievement, social mobility, trust, and community life. They’re also linked to heightened levels of infant mortality, obesity, drug abuse, crime, violence, and incarceration.

In light of these realities, it’s no surprise that some political leaders are calling for dramatic policy changes designed to tamp down economic inequality. Equally unsurprising, some members of the so-called billionaire class in this country are outraged by these proposals. Responding to Senator Bernie Sanders’s comment that he doesn’t think billionaires should exist, Stephen Schwarzman — the billionaire CEO of the private equity firm Blackstone Group — told a New York City audience, “Maybe Bernie Sanders shouldn’t exist.” On the Fox Business Network, Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, angrily called Sanders a “blowhard” and asked, “What the hell has he done for the little people?” And CNBC host Jim Cramer reported that Wall Street executives — privately discussing the aspirations of Senator Elizabeth Warren — had told him “she’s got to be stopped.”

Complaints like these are nothing new from America’s super-rich. Almost a decade ago, Schwarzman (noted above) compared the possible elimination of a favorable hedge fund tax loophole to “when Hitler invaded Poland.” A few years later, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, now-deceased billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins wrote, “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one-percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one-percent, namely the ‘rich.’” And fellow billionaire Sam Zell told Bloomberg News, “This country should not talk about envy of the one-percent. It should talk about emulating the one-percent.”

But should we really be trying to emulate the one-percent? Perhaps not. Psychological research suggests that the super-rich, as a group, aren’t necessarily the role models we collectively need if our goal is to advance the common good and build a more decent society. In particular, one reason to be skeptical involves a constellation of interlinked personality traits — Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism — that psychologists call the “Dark Triad.” The originators of the term summarize it this way: “To varying degrees, all three entail a socially malevolent character with behavior tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness.”

Let’s now consider each of these three components separately, in regard to what they may tell us about the one-percent.

Machiavellianism

The first trait of the Dark Triad — Machiavellianism — refers to one’s willingness to deceitfully manipulate and exploit people and circumstances for personal gain. In an illuminating series of studies, psychologists have found that this tendency is more common among those with greater wealth and status.

These researchers compared the actions of participants categorized as either “upper class” or “lower class” — based on measures of socioeconomic status — in a variety of different situations. For example, one study used the age, model, and appearance of cars as a proxy for the drivers’ wealth. Those driving more expensive vehicles cut off pedestrians and other cars more often at a busy intersection.

In a second study, higher social-class participants reported a greater likelihood of engaging in various unethical behaviors, such as keeping extra change that was mistakenly given to them by a cashier. In a third study, half of the participants first compared themselves to people at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, while the other half instead compared themselves to those at the bottom of the ladder. Afterward, those in the second group — now primed to see themselves as better off than others — took more candy from a jar they were told had treats intended for children in a lab nearby. In yet another study, participants were instructed to play the role of an employer involved a hypothetical salary negotiation with a prospective employee. They were told that this job hunter was specifically looking for a long-term position — and that this available opening would only last six-months. The researchers found that those higher in social class were more likely to deceptively withhold this important information from the applicant.

A final study involved a game of chance using the computerized rolling of dice. Here too, the participants higher in social class cheated more often in order to receive a modest cash prize.

With findings like these, is it surprising that many huge corporations — controlled by individuals with extraordinary personal wealth — have employed Machiavellian tactics that fail to honor the public trust? There’s no shortage of high-profile examples. At Enron, officials fraudulently propped up the company’s stock price, leading thousands of unsuspecting employees to lose their retirement savings when the company collapsed shortly thereafter. General Motors turned a blind eye to manufacturing defects and then, despite the heightened risk of driver injury and death, engaged in a years-long cover-up. R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies spent decades withholding scientific evidence and misleading the public about the harmful effects of smoking. Large for-profit colleges and training institutes have lured students into expensive programs with deceptive advertising, have offered them false assurances of future employment, and have saddled them with lifetimes of debt.

During the financial collapse a decade ago, investment banking giant Goldman Sachs recommended and sold to its clients billions of dollars of deceptively valued securities tied to risky home mortgages — in order to unload these toxic assets from its own accounts. And pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma continued to aggressively market OxyContin for years after the company learned that the drug was highly addictive, contributing to tens of thousands of deaths from prescription opioid overdoses.

Psychopathy

The second component of the Dark Triad — psychopathy — refers to a person’s lack of empathy toward others and a tendency to behave in a callous and uncaring manner toward them. Here too, research by psychologists supports the view that, compared to their “lower-class” counterparts, “upper-class” individuals act with less compassion — and also fall short on certain basic skills necessary for building positive connections with other people.

In one experiment, for example, lower-income participants were substantially more willing to take on extra work to help out a distressed research partner than were the upper-income participants. In another study, lower-class participants demonstrated a stronger compassion-related physiological response than did their upper-class counterparts after watching a video of children suffering from cancer. In a related study, the lower-class participants in a stressful interview process showed greater sensitivity and compassion toward their competitors than did the upper-class interviewees.

And in an experiment with four-year-old children, those from less wealthy homes behaved more altruistically than those from wealthier homes, donating more of their prize tokens to children they were told were hospitalized.

In other studies, individuals from a lower social class were significantly better than upper-class participants at judging the emotions being portrayed when they were presented with photos of human faces. The researchers concluded that this enhanced ability may reflect the reality that those who are less well-off must rely more on accurately reading their social environment, because they depend more on interpersonal relationships and collaborative efforts in their daily lives.

On the other hand, individuals with extensive material resources like today’s super-rich are more likely to find close relationships, especially with people of lesser means, quite unnecessary in their goal-oriented pursuits — and their perspective-taking abilities may suffer as a result.

In the business world, a compassion deficit among members of the billionaire class isn’t very hard to see. For example, rarely do we hear the CEOs of today’s corporate behemoths acknowledge the critical role that they themselves play in blocking upward mobility and financial security for millions of working-class Americans.

Most obviously, union-busting and related “right-to-work” efforts suppress the wages and benefits that could dramatically improve the lives of working families. More broadly, despite substantial increases in worker productivity over the past few decades, the super-rich have directed the rewards of economic growth into their own pockets rather than into their employees’ paychecks. Likewise, international trade agreements, written in secret with strong corporate representation, have prioritized protecting profits for huge companies over safeguarding wages, human rights, and the environment. Perhaps this callousness is captured especially well by Amazon’s billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos, who reportedly once described his negotiating approach as similar to “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”

Narcissism

The third trait of the Dark Triad — narcissism — refers to an individual’s sense of superiority over other people and convictions about personal entitlement to special treatment. Once again, in a diverse set of psychological studies, individuals of higher social class displayed greater levels of narcissism and entitlement than did their less wealthy counterparts.

In one study, for example, participants who rated themselves higher on a measure of socioeconomic status also scored higher on a scale designed to measure psychological entitlement; a sample item from that scale is “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than others.” Another study instead used a nonverbal measure of entitlement. Participants looked at sets of circles of varying sizes and were asked to identify which size circle best described how they saw themselves compared to others. Those of higher social status picked larger circles as their self-descriptors than did those of lower social status. In a third study that used a behavioral measure of narcissism, upper-class participants were more likely than their lower-class counterparts to make use of a wall mirror before having their photos taken. In a survey study, researchers in Germany directly assessed a sample of very high net-worth individuals. They too found that this group scored higher on a measure of narcissism compared to a separate sample of people of lesser economic means.

In the board room and beyond, the narcissistic super-rich are accustomed to being in charge and to having things their way — unlike those they sometimes refer to as “the little people.” Of course, they don’t necessarily feel fortunate in this regard because, by their own account, they fully deserve all the benefits and privileges bestowed upon them. The special favors they receive are particularly apparent when we consider the corrupting influence of wealth on “equal justice under law,” the hallowed words engraved atop the Supreme Court Building in our nation’s capital. Indeed, unequal treatment runs the gamut from the likelihood of arrest and prosecution to the leniency offered in sentencing.

As one example of these unwritten norms, wealthy tax cheats have developed a broad repertoire of arguments — based on notions of personal superiority — for why they should receive a light sentence or no sentence at all after being caught, prosecuted, and found guilty (all rarities in their own right). Their farfetched justifications — which some judges nevertheless find persuasive — include all of the following: they’ve already suffered sufficient public humiliation for their misdeeds; although they cheated, they’ve also been generous in their charitable donations; the fines they’ve paid were sufficiently punitive; and their status as “job creators” makes it unwise to remove them from the community and put them behind bars.

The Bottom Line

Let’s now revisit the notion that the widespread misery and shattered dreams associated with today’s extreme inequality can be overcome by following the lead of the one-percent. Clearly, the deeply-entrenched Dark Triad tendencies among the super-rich should caution us against taking this path. After all, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism aren’t the qualities one looks for in a reliable and trustworthy guide.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize two countervailing considerations. First, not everyone who’s exceedingly wealthy displays this disturbing trio of psychological traits, or routinely engages in the antisocial behaviors associated with them. Second, there’s obviously no requirement that you have to be rich in order to be an obnoxious narcissist who lacks compassion and exploits other people.

But these caveats don’t alter the fundamental reality: there are members of the one-percent who do act upon their Dark Triad inclinations and impulses. That’s a serious problem because their extraordinary wealth gives them tremendous influence over our laws, our politics, and our public square — and they’re eager and able to use their power and resources to pursue a self-serving agenda at the expense of the common good.

Psychology matters in another way as well. As part of their efforts, these one-percenters use an assortment of psychological appeals to mislead us about what’s happening, what’s right, and what’s possible. These manipulative “mind games” include a wide range of deceptive claims: change is dangerous; concerns over inequality are overblown; hard times hit those who don’t measure up; the wealthy are the ones being mistreated; critics of the super-rich are misguided and misinformed; the wealthy deserve the public’s trust; one-percenters have earned their enormous wealth and power; critics of the billionaire class are un-American; change is impossible; and the one-percent aren’t to blame for society’s problems. Debunking these and similar appeals — and inoculating ourselves and others against them — is therefore a necessary step in successfully challenging a status quo that prioritizes the few over the many.

There’s a popular account, perhaps fictitious, about an exchange between writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald purportedly wrote, “The rich are different from you and me” — and Hemingway replied, “Yes, they have more money.” Some members of the billionaire class would like us to believe it’s really that simple. But it appears the truth may actually be much darker.