Cash rules everything around you—especially your psychology.
Whether you have it or not, it’s hard to get away from the influence of money. Your education, your profession, your partner, and your health are all directly influenced by it. So it’s probably not that surprising that psychologists have found that money dramatically changes how we see the world.
For decades, there’s been a small trickle of research in this field. But since the 2008 recession, it has grown to a steady stream, says Michael Kraus, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “People care about what money does to our society, and what money and position does to individuals,” he says. “Wealth creates these persistent social contexts that you live in throughout your life.”
Having money gives you more autonomy and control over your own life. Wealthy people tend to be more narcissistic and think they’re more able and skilled than the average person. So maybe it follows that wealth can also make you selfish and unethical: Wealthy people may justify pursuing wealth as a good thing, and craft narratives of “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps,” even if they were born into privilege (a narrative peddled by a famous and newly-political family we might know).
If someone isn’t wealthy, a wealthy person’s logic goes, it’s because they lack the talent or the drive to reach the same level. It’s hard not to see the connection to politics here, but Kraus says the two aren’t as directly related as you may suspect, though wealthy politicians of both parties do tend to systematically push legislation that increases income inequality. Studies show that wealthy people are less good at reading others’ emotions, even though they might think they are. “Does money make you mean?” psychologist Paul Piff asked in his 2013 TED talk. The evidence seems to overwhelmingly say yes.
“In a lot of ways it’s really good to have outcomes dependent on you and not on others—it prevents you from doing a lot of emotional work others may be doing and frees you up to focus on your own goals,” Kraus says.
Less wealthy people, conversely, have less control over their environments and have been found to be more empathetic, compassionate, and generous to others. This might be because, in lieu of wealth that would make them autonomous, they have to rely on one another to ensure that their needs are met, Kraus says; another theory suggests poor people may need to be more vigilant to their environment if it’s not safe.
Greater concern for others means the poor give a larger proportion of their wealth to charity. Poor people also don’t perform as well on cognitive tests, possibly because, the study reads, “poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.” Money problems are also a key driver for divorce, and financial strain pushes couples away from reconciliation.
These facts are particularly important today as Americans have high rates of income inequality and little socioeconomic mobility. The income level we’re born into creates patterns by which we experience the world, reinforcing themselves as our lives go on. And despite the lessons from stories like Cinderella and the Prince and the Pauper, you can’t really fake having money. “It’s such a pervasive part of our lives, the effort it would take to fake is really too much,” Kraus says. “Wealth and standing infects the neighborhood you live in, the school you attend, the accent you might have, the clothes you wear, certainly your job, and your spouse tends to be from the same class. Faking it means pretending to have a whole bunch of competencies you don’t have.”
Maybe that’s okay—even though having money frees up your brain to focus on other things, it doesn’t necessarily make you happier. Kraus says there are still more questions to answer about the psychological effects of wealth. There’s a greater push to find truly wealthy people—we’re talking millionaires—to study, and to analyze the relationship between wealth and politics by tracking the decisions of public figures such as congressmen. Kraus’ team is increasingly looking at the relationship between inequality and race.
These questions are mere iterations on the same theme—wealth affects nearly everything about our lives, including our psychology, and there’s nothing we can do about it. “It’s absurd that things would be so arbitrary that a birth lottery would determine everything about your future,” Kraus says. “We don’t want to live in a society where that’s true, even though we do live in a society where that’s true.”
Studies like these may suggest that the prospects for advancing are bleak if you weren’t born into wealth, if you want to close the inequality gap, if you were born wealthy and don’t want to be a total asshole; you might think that Kraus has the most depressing job at Yale. But he sees a silver lining. Wealthy people aren’t broken, he says—you just have to make them more aware that they may unwittingly have biases, to help use power ethically, to encourage them to help people along the way to making money. And he’s fortunate enough to stand in front of 300 privileged people each year in the hope of helping them do that when they inevitably reach positions of power. “This is not good news. But I’m still hopeful that rational minds will prevail and that a fairer society is possible.”