Wealthy Selfies: How Being Rich Increases Narcissism

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August 22nd, 2013

The rich really are different — and, apparently more self-absorbed, according to the latest research.

That goes against the conventional wisdom that the more people have, the more they appreciate their obligations to give back to others. Recent studies show, for example, that wealthier people are more likely to cut people off in traffic and to behave unethically in simulated business and charity scenarios. Earlier this year, statistics on charitable giving revealed that while the wealthy donate about 1.3% of their income to charity, the poorest actually give more than twice as much as a proportion of their earnings — 3.2%.

“There’s this idea that the more you have, the less entitled and more grateful you feel; and the less you have, the more you feel you deserve. That’s not what we find,” says author Paul Piff, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “This seems to be the opposite of noblesse oblige.”

In five different experiments involving several hundred undergraduates and 100 adults recruited from online communities, the researchers found higher levels of both narcissism and entitlement among those of higher income and social class.

The study, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, showed that when asked to visually depict themselves as circles, with size indicating relative importance, richer people picked larger circles for themselves and smaller ones for others. Another experiment found that they also looked in the mirror more frequently.

The wealthier participants were also more likely to agree with statements like “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than other people” and place themselves higher on a self-assessed “class ladder” that indicated increasing levels of income, education and job prestige.

But which came first — did gaining wealth increase self-aggrandizement? Were self-infatuated people more likely to seek and then gain riches? Or, alternatively do narcissistic people feel especially entitled to rank themselves higher than their actual incomes and education levels justify, therefore creating a misleading connection between wealth and narcissism?

To explore that relationship further, the researchers also asked the college students in one experiment to report the educational attainment and annual income of their parents. Those with more highly educated and wealthier parents remained higher in their self-reported entitlement and narcissistic characteristics. “That would suggest that it’s not just [that] people who feel entitled are more likely to become wealthy,” says Piff. Wealth, in other words, may breed narcissistic tendencies — and wealthy people justify their excess by convincing themselves that they are more deserving of it.

“The strength of the study is that it uses multiple methods for measuring narcissism and entitlement and social class and multiple populations, and that can really increase our confidence in the results,” says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, who was not associated with the research.

The findings therefore do not suggest that narcissists have some sort of financial or professional advantage. She says, “This paper should not be read as saying that narcissists are more successful because we know from lots of other studies that that’s not true. People say we have to be that way because it’s so competitive, but it doesn’t actually help you compete.”

Twenge also notes that there is a difference between narcissistic traits, as measured in this study, and clinical narcissistic-personality disorder. The disorder is actually more common among the poor rather than the rich, according to other studies. That’s probably because at its most extreme, narcissism destroys relationships both in the home and workplace — and therefore, is more likely to lead to unemployment and poverty, not success.

It’s also important to recognize that “entitlement is a facet of narcissism,” says Twenge. “And [it’s the] one most associated with high social class. It’s the idea that you deserve special treatment and that things will come to you without working hard.”

The results come as no surprise to Madeline Levine, a California psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well, who has long treated affluent teens in her practice. “Their sense of entitlement is overpowering,” she says, describing a teenage patient who stomped in furious and feeling deprived because he was stuck driving his mother’s “mom-car Lexus” rather than being given his own BMW.

“The narcissist doesn’t suffer the most, it’s the people around them that do,” Levine says. “How parents tolerate this kind of entitlement in their kids is kind of mind-boggling,” she adds, noting that the boy got his BMW.

Manipulating the sense of entitlement, however, may provide a way to influence narcissism. In the final experiment in the paper, the researchers found that having participants who listed three benefits of seeing others as equals eliminated class differences in narcissism, while simply listing three daily activities did not. “When we make people feel less entitled, [they are] less narcissistic,” says Piff. Twenge also notes that telling narcissistic people that someone else shares the same birthday or has similar fingerprints reduces their aggression toward those they see as more like themselves.

How long those results last or whether they translate into significant differences in behavior isn’t clear. Psychologists emphasize, however, that being able to see the world from other people’s perspectives — empathy — is critical to fighting narcissism.

In the meantime, the connection between wealth and entitlement could have troubling social implications. “You have this bifurcation of rich and poor,” says Levine. “The rich are increasingly entitled, and since they set the cultural tone for advertising and all those kinds of things, I think there’s a pervasive sense of entitlement.”

That could perpetuate a deepening lack of empathy that could fuel narcissistic tendencies. “You could imagine negative attitudes toward wealth redistribution as a result of entitlement,” says Piff. “The more severe inequality becomes, the more entitled people may feel and the less likely to share those resources they become.” The wealthier certain segments of society become, then, the more vulnerable communities may be to selfish tendencies — and the less charity the least among us can expect.

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