Study: Wealthy People Are Mean, Entitled, and Narcissistic

Advertiser Disclosure This article/post contains references to products or services from one or more of our advertisers or partners. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products or services.
Last updated on July 23, 2019 Comments: 26

No, I’m not attempting to start a class warfare riot. As the title of this article states, recent studies have shown beyond any doubt how wealth or a feeling of wealth leads people to behave in a more self-interested manner.

Paul K. Piff, a social psychologist post-doctoral scholar in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley, led this research and shared his findings in a recent TED Talk, which you can view below. If you’re not reading this article on Consumerism Commentary, you can watch the video here or at the TED website.

In one of the experiments, the researchers created a rigged two-player game of Monopoly for one hundred pairs of subjects. By virtue of a coin toss, one subject in each pair was chosen to play by an advantaged set of rules, while the other would play by the standard set of rules. These are the privileges afforded the advantaged player by design:

  • The advantaged player begins the game with twice as much money.
  • The advantaged player collects twice as much bonus money for passing “go.”
  • The advantaged player rolls two dice rather than one, as the disadvantaged player rolls.

With hidden cameras, researchers were able to observe the attitudes of the players. The rich players smacked their playing pieces around the board aggressively, consumed more snacks, and celebrated their successes. The aggressive behavior wasn’t limited to their relationship to inanimate objects; the advantaged players acted ruder towards their competitors. One of my favorite quotes from the recorded gamin sessions came from a rich player: “I’m pretty much untouchable at this point.”

The games were limited to only fifteen minutes. Unlike non-rigged Monopoly sessions, these games wouldn’t have lasted much longer than fifteen minutes anyway. When the games were over, the researchers asked the rich players to reflect on their success. The winners attributed success to their skill, completely ignoring the fact that the game was obviously rigged. Their success was, in their opinion, due to the choices they made in buying properties.

Had the coin flip at the outset of the game produced the opposite result, this game-playing skill would have gotten these winners nowhere. Had they started out with half the wealth of their opponents as measured in Monopoly money and were forced to move around the board slowly, they would be in the losing position — most likely blaming the situation on their environment, not their supposed lack of skill.

The video includes additional demonstrations that show how an increase in wealth correlated to decreases in compassion, empathy, and even willingness to obey the law. At the same time, the increase in wealth is correlated to increases in selfishness and narcissism.

From Scientific American’s report on the study:

But why would wealth and status decrease our feelings of compassion for others? After all, it seems more likely that having few resources would lead to selfishness. Piff and his colleagues suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused.

Will taking on those personality traits and attitudes associated with wealth help to bring about financial success? If you start acting greedy, will you be more likely to grow your wealth? Many authors have suggested thinking like one is wealthy in order to become financially successful. When wealth is revered as a goal, those who have achieved it are revered as well. And they’re more than happy to share their insights with the rest of the “average” world listening. You’ll rarely hear any expert advice from the wealthy that touches on luck, circumstance, or privilege; the key to wealth lies in hard work, perseverance, and making smart decisions.

Those great attributes for attaining success don’t work for people who are living in poverty, but they sell a lot of books.

There is virtue in taking responsibility and blame for your circumstances, whether those circumstances are positive or negative. It helps you identify aspects in your life than you can change to improve your situation. There’s a tradition of blaming bad situations on external forces — the economy, your employer, your parents’ skills — while taking responsibility for good situations, just like the research subjects did in the Monopoly experiment. It takes objective analysis to separate yourself from the situation and truly evaluate the forces that played a role in any particular situation.

Taking responsibility for the good and assigning blame for the bad is a variation of a defense mechanism. If good situations are a result of our choices, they can be repeated, and success will continue despite of the world around us. If bad situations are someone else’s fault, there is nothing inherently wrong with us; given the right opportunity, we will succeed, too.

Not every financially independent person displays these negative personality traits, and not every wealthy person cares little about the world around him or her. You can see that in highly-publicized examples of wealthy individuals making selfless choices.

  • Bill Gates, the privileged founder of Microsoft, formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle many societal problems around the world.
  • Warren Buffett, along with the aforementioned Gates, launched the Giving Pledge in 2010, encouraging some of the world’s richest individuals to give away their wealth to charity.
  • Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook donated $1 billion last year, 5% of his total net worth.

Lest the reader believe that this research and other studies by this author pertaining to social class are too critical of the wealthy, Piff does point out when the attitudes of the rich have positive outcomes for them, and for those who adopt the same principles. The wealthy believe, due to their control over their situations, that the quality of their health is in their control. They go to more appointments with doctors and take advantage of preventative medicine, while others who believe they have little control over their health end up in emergency rooms for problems that could have been prevented.

This is a stratification based on wealth, but also based on access to medical professionals and trust of the health industry. The realization that we can control many aspects of our lives results in better health, but also increased wealth — relatively.

The word entitlement is usually used in American society when talking about welfare benefits or other governmental assistance for the poor. It’s often used in a pejorative sense, implying that those who receive these benefits don’t deserve them because they lack the motivation to improve their situation. There is also the implication that wealth redistribution (in that particular direction) is bad for society because it encourages complacency. What the studies about attitudes of the wealthy and the average show is that those with power and money consider themselves entitled.

With a high level of self-efficacy, the wealthy believe they earned their success through hard work. They perceive the poor through that lens, as if that difficult situation is a matter of level of effort, while the poor look through their own lens of opportunity, seeing the wealthy as have been provided advantages by society.

It’s difficult to take a large step back and look at the progression of my life as if I were an outside observer trying to understand an individual. I maintained a low sense of self-efficacy for a while, and a former boss of mine continued to chastise me for it. I wasn’t disadvantaged — in fact, I had a relatively advantaged background, able to explore my passions without completely devastating my finances — but I was not very well-positioned to handle the small amount of money I was earning with great decisions. I was making the most of a bad situation, which could have been much better if I had made a few better choices. I thought I’d be able to pursue a degree in education and a job in non-profit, but I didn’t have the financial grounding to make that possible.

After a few difficult life lessons from experience, I opened my eyes a little bit more and started taking control of my situation. Again, I wasn’t living in poverty. I was smart and marketable to employers. Things were going to get better for me once I put the effort in, but these advantages aren’t available to everyone. The question is whether my approach towards other people has changed in the years following as I drew closer to financial independence. I’d like to think that it hasn’t, but I’m sure I’m not immune to the subconscious changes.

Watch the video above to see how the feeling of wealth can affect an individual’s attitude towards another person. Have you seen evidence of wealth being correlated to meanness? Is selfishness an essential personality trait for attaining wealth?

Article comments

Anonymous says:

Bias confirmation of the highest order. Virtually all people (rich and poor) have the potential to be mean, entitled, and narcissistic.

The basic fact is that life is unfair. Yes, people are born under different economic and social circumstances. But they are also born with different levels of intelligence, ingenuity, work ethic, and motivation. When societies attempt to “level the table” in order to create artificially equal results, they marginalize the producers to satiate the lowest common denominator. Often, it unintentionally retards those who can potentially contribute most to the advancement of that society. In the end, social engineering makes everybody is worse off. This has been proven repeatedly throughout history.

Tom says:

Hi everyone, I’m just putting some feelers out there to see if there’s anyone interested in making a pretty substantial amount of cash within a short amount of time. Only thing this requires is that you have an active bank account or credit card . No cash is required up front to start with. Which means your account can be on a zero balance and that’s completely fine. Feel free to text +1(314) 856 1730, lets talk about the next deal

Anonymous says:

This explains so much. It also explains why people who have good jobs and benefits will not hire unemployed people. There is huge contempt on the part of people who have good jobs toward people who are job hunting. I also found this recently when I applied to be a volunteer. The woman who was interviewing me made it clear that because I was applying to work for free that I had no brains either.

Anonymous says:

It would be interesting to see if a poor person who won the lottery eventually rationalized it as personal skill that got them there instead of environment or luck. It think it’s socially easy to say the rich are lucky (attribute situation to external forces), while non-PC and socially awkward to say the poor are lazy (attribute situation to personal incompetency). However, we all know that at the end of your life, most of the good/bad events are tallied to things you *did* rather than things that just randomly *happened*.
Another horrible idea is the “making smart decisions” bit. We all concede there’s average intelligence and above-average intelligence but nobody ever wants to point a finger to below-average intelligence. However, by the very definition of “average” there has to be some above and some below. And this average can apply not only to overall intelligence but to specific subject matters as well. So, we know half the people are dumber than the rest at something, is it our job to teach them to be better at things like finance? OK, so they get better and members shuffle around a bit. But there’s still an average so there’s still people above and below that bar. There’s still a “dumb by comparison” group. Do the ones in that group attribute the other 50%’s success (by comparison) as luck? Or do they just say, “Oh hell, I’m not as smart as them at that”? 50% are never going to be as good at building wealth as another 50% are. This applies to everything in life when you average. It’s a given that the bottom 5% of any group is going to be spectacularly bad at whatever it is. Can we admit, “10% of you just suck with money compared to your fellow humans. If you study hard, you might get out of that group, but there’s still going to be 10% that suck–someone else will just move down the ladder whenever another moves up.”

Gary Wheatley says:

. However, we all know that at the end of your life, most of the good/bad events are tallied to things you *did* rather than things that just randomly *happened*. Have to question this point, as a determinist I believe that once you take into the amazing amount of variables between one persons life and another, such as race, culture, parents, social economic status, intelligence, peers and influences, as well as generation and opportunities, among limitless others, the reality is that we have very little power over our lives, there is so much that we have no control over, even being born in the first place was not a choice, so the idea that our life is a result of things we did is simply not true, the things that have influenced us throughout our lives result in our choices being simply inevitable.

Anonymous says:

Very fascinating observations in the Monopoly game but I doubt the findings hold true for real world billionaires. If we talk about those who got rich quickly, without much effort or skill, perhaps their arrogance is more prominent, but if someone literally put their backs into their work and earned their millions and billions after sacrificing a lot, I’m sure they remain humble – like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, to name a few.

Luke Landes says:

Interesting hypothesis. It’s a good thing there’s a scientific process that allows people to test hypotheses, getting beyond assumptions based on personal experiences.

Anonymous says:

More than the experiment, I think that you are hitting basic human nature here. Humans love to take credit. They also have egos that want to gain more than other people. The result will be the same if the poorer person was given the advantage. And it takes some maturity and a lot of problems to be able to breakthrough this natural tendency and start being compassionate.

Donna Freedman says:

Oh, and this reinforces my desire never to play Monopoly again. 😉
Seriously, though, when I was a kid we’d play for hours and hours. (Small town, no tech like today, had to make our own fun.) But these days I can’t bear the underpinnings of the game: to get rich by driving everyone else into bankruptcy.

Anonymous says:

I would interpret the study results to mean that sometimes people are not graceful winners when playing Monopoly. Nothing more and nothing less. I wonder if they would have gotten the exact same results with a rigged game of chutes & ladders?

Anonymous says:

Am I the only one who thinks that random selection of people for a rigged game of Monopoly cannot possibly generalize to the real world. The ‘advantaged’ players cannot be said to be representative of the group alluded to by the study!!! They were not “of” that group at all.

Again, consider the source.

Anonymous says:

Yes that’s just one of many issues. That also if you own a expensive car you must be wealthy. So you must be mean.

When in many other studies show (ie “Millionaire Next Door”) individuals who have expensive cars are typically income rich, but low accumulators of wealth.

There are many other conclusions you can derive from the study. Perhaps individuals who own expensive cars are more “entitled” but doesn’t make them more rich. (ie our babysitter owned a Lexus but was far from wealthy.)

Correlation does not equal causation.

Anonymous says:


Where does Millionaire Next Door say that people who drive expensive cars are not typically wealthy (high net worth)? I believe it showed that most millionaires don’t drive luxury brands. But that does not necessarily mean that most luxury brand drivers aren’t high net worth.

Anonymous says:

I would have to research, but expensive cars did show low accumulation of net worth.

Anonymous says:

Anonymous says:

Larry, that wiki entry doesn’t actually support the conclusion that driving expensive cars means you aren’t wealthy. It says PAWs are ‘less likely’ to buy luxury cars than UAWs. But that doesn’t mean that people who drive luxury cars are typically UAWs. BTW, you can have UAWs who are millionaires. Its a relative thing. A 50 year old doctor could be a millionaire and a UAW.

Anonymous says:

University of California, Berkeley… always consider the source.

Anonymous says:

Finally, a reasonable observation.

Anonymous says:

Many issues with the way the research was done and the inferred conclusions. Sounds like I need to write an article on the issues of this research and now Monopoly is NOT like life. While I as a child loved Monopoly, realized the game is more luck than strategy or effort. Monopoly is a zero sum game – The object of the game is one winner. Life isn’t a zero sum game and nor is capitalism. My success in creating a business doesn’t make someone else poorer. In fact the reverse is true.

Real life is more effort and strategy, than luck. Luck plays some part of becoming wealthy no doubt, but in most cases if you never took action you never would have encountered the luck to begin with.

Lastly he uses Bill Gates as an example?!?!? If anyone in technology industry was mean it would be him. Bill Gates we never a nice guy even before he had money, and if anyone was to describe someone as a privileged background it would be him. He grew up far from poor.

Not sure all of the wrongs he did during his career now makes it right since he’s giving some of his money away. Perhaps Bill Gates feels guilting in the method he acquired some of his wealth?

Anonymous says:

Very thought provoking article and an interesting experiment. The mantra of many personal finance websites (mine included) is that all too often “poor” people blame their environment (the things situation they find themselves in) rather than doing something about it. However, as you say, successful people almost always overlook the impact of the facets of the situation which actually arose through fortune or forces out of our control.

Donna Freedman says:

I don’t think everyone who’s rich is mean, or that it takes selfishness to achieve wealth. What I do think is that a lot of rich people believe that others want to take it all away from them and react with hostility.
I definitely believe the part about invisible privilege. People who think they did it all on their own tend to forget those advantages, and spend way too much time wondering why everyone else doesn’t work as hard as they do. As you’ve noted before, Luke, lower-income populations work plenty damn hard — but if you don’t know what you don’t know, and if you don’t have access to those invisible privileges (e.g., a good education, the ability to present yourself well) you’re not likely to go as far.
Or, as I put it in a post on my personal website, “where you start too often determines where you stay.” Not because you don’t want to succeed, but because you don’t know how/are too overwhelmed just staying alive (hi there, single parents with low-paying jobs and no child support!) to be able to plan for the future.
If it’s okay to post the URL of that piece, here goes:

Anonymous says:

Donna, with all the president’s talk about wealth re-distribution, I think it is reasonable for wealthy people to think that someone might try to take it away from them. As a person who had $35 thousand of General Motors stock stolen from my IRA by the government and given to the union during the GM bankruptcy proceedings, I can certainly attest to the hostility you describe.

Luke Landes says:

If you invested in GM and remained invested as the domestic auto industry was failing, you’d be left with nothing today regardless of the bankruptcy. This article in USA Today does a good job of addressing your concern. The government didn’t take your valueless (not $35,000 — maybe $35,000 at some point long ago) shares away and give them to the union. Your shares dissolved because you were invested in a company going under.

Anonymous says:

Thats ridiculous.
Who stole money out of your IRA and how??

DO you mean to say you owned a bankrupt company that got a government bail out and you weren’t made 100% whole in the process?? I don’t think anyone stole anything from you.

Karen M Califano says:

Donna, I agree with you 100%. I’ve worked for and now work for a very wealthy attorney as his assistant (he’s a multi millionaire at 59) and has been for some time, and most of these rich types do worry about others “taking it away from them” and don’t trust many people either. He lives a nice life, and is an extremely entitled type of person and so is is wife. Most of his friends are all rich as well and live the same high end type of privileged lifestyles and many are quite out of touch with the rest of us. My co-worker and I always joke about how his petty problems are “rich people problems” compared to the rest of what us “average working girls” have to deal with in our lives.

Anonymous says:

Fascinating stuff. I’ve always maintained that things would be a lot easier on so-called class warfare if more people were able to acknowledge all of the advantages they have. Because it really does make a difference.

My husband and I were able to get out of a lot of debt on very little money and a very low ability to work for health reasons. But we also had an amazing support network — aka my mom — who came by with food she’d gotten cheaply at the grocery store, let us use her car whenever necessary, etc. Before I met my husband, she was even having to chip in for my rent. (Also, let’s not forget the fact that I was born white, middle class and well-spoken. That alone opened a LOT of doors for me.)

Without her — and quite a bit of luck in general — it would have taken us far longer to get rid of the debt, and we would still be in a much more financially disadvantage situation.