Research Proves It: There’s No Such Thing as Noblesse Oblige

To understand how money affects politics, we need to understand how money affects psychology.

illustration depicting a skull covered by monopoly money
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Paul Piff just landed on Park Place. I own it. “Shit,” he says.

I also own three railroads, a couple of high-rent monopolies, and a smattering of random properties. Piff is low on cash. He’s toast.

We’re playing Monopoly on a sunny pre-pandemic afternoon in Piff’s modest office at UC Irvine. The 39-year-old psychology professor is an expert on how differences in wealth and status affect people’s values and behavior. On his desk, accompanying an Iggy Pop figurine and a squeeze toy in the shape of a brain, is a framed print of a Campbell’s soup can with the slogan Empathy… Have some! Piff may be an empathetic guy, but his frustration is showing. He’s ready, he says, for this “absurd” game to be done so he can go home for dinner.

The game is absurd because it’s rigged heavily in my favor. More than a decade ago, as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of the UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, Piff used a series of rigged Monopoly games to see how people would respond to being placed randomly into a position of privilege. Some 200 student volunteers were pitted against one another. The “rich” player was given twice as much cash as the “poor” player, collected twice as much money when passing Go, and passed Go more often, because he got to roll two dice while the poorer player got only one. (Richie Rich also got the most popular playing piece, the little car, while his opponent received the undesirable boot.)

As the games progressed, rich players became more and more cocksure. They spoke louder, moved their pieces more aggressively, and even consumed more pretzels from bowls that the researchers had put out as part of the experiment. “We had little gradients on the table where you could measure how much space a person is taking up from when they began to when they ended,” Piff told me. “The richer players began to take up more room. They got bigger as they got richer.”

It’s Piff’s turn; he rolls his die. “Five. Tennessee. I’m not going to buy it.”

He can’t afford it.

book cover
This has been adapted from Mechanic’s forthcoming book.

The Monopoly experiment wasn’t the most rigorous science ever, and Piff never published the results, although the study was later replicated by others and referenced in Piff’s popular TED Talk, “Does Money Make You Mean?” But his observations were consistent with a large body of social science finding that people of higher socioeconomic status, compared with those lower down the ladder, are more prone to entitlement and narcissistic behavior. Wealthier subjects also tend to be more self-oriented and more willing to behave unethically in their own self-interest (to lie during negotiations, say, or to steal from an employer). In one study, Piff and his colleagues stationed a pedestrian at the edge of a busy crosswalk and watched to see which cars would let the person cross. Suffice it to say that Fords and Subarus were far more likely to stop than Mercedeses and BMWs.

We find such research amusing because it jibes with our stereotypes of rich people. But there’s nothing frivolous about asking how having an abundance of money affects our psychology. After all, the ranks of the rich, and the wealth they command, have exploded in the United States since the end of the Great Recession. Not even a pandemic could stop this avalanche of assets. The ultrawealthy—Americans with $30 million and up—suffered a brief setback, but by September 2020 the markets had rebounded and the rich were very nearly whole again. Even as the poor and middle class reeled from job losses and the threat of evictions and foreclosures, scores of new billionaires were minted.

Early in his career, Piff had observed that people were studying the causes and effects of poverty ad nauseam, but nobody was addressing the questions he wanted to ask. Namely: What are the social and psychological ramifications of being on top of the economic food chain, of occupying positions of privilege? Wealth-related differences in attitudes and behavior are particularly important wherever the rich have an outsize sway over politics and policy. If, for instance, wealth makes people less compassionate, then a government that believes that the rich should behave in the interests of the populace may have to force them to do so.

Political scientists such as Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens have found notable differences in the policy preferences of affluent versus middle-class Americans, not only on purely economic matters like taxation but also on public-education funding, racial equity, and environmental protections, all of which the rich have been significantly less likely to support. This matters because of the influence the rich have over government officials. In one study, Gilens, now a professor at UCLA, combed through thousands of public survey responses and discovered that, on issues where the views of wealthy voters diverged significantly from those of the rest of the populace, the policies ultimately put in place “strongly” reflected the desires of the most affluent respondents—the top-earning 10 percent. Those policies, the study concluded, bore “virtually no relationship to the preferences” of poorer Americans.

Wealthy people are less likely than poor ones, in lab settings at least, to relate to the suffering of others. When people experience compassion, it turns out, our hearts actually slow down. In 2012, Piff’s then-colleagues Michael Kraus and Jennifer Stellar hooked volunteers up to ECG machines and showed them two short videos: a “neutral” video of a woman explaining how to construct a patio wall and a “compassion” video of children receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Relative to the wealthier participants, the poorer ones not only reported feeling greater compassion for the kids but also exhibited a significantly larger slowdown in heart rate from one video to the next.

If affluent people are less moved by the suffering of others, they should be less likely to help those in need, and this too seems to be true both in the lab and outside it. While wealthy families donate significantly more money to charity on average than poor families do, they tend to give away a smaller share of their income. “As wealth goes up, the stinginess seems to increase,” Piff said.

Raymond Fisman, a behavioral economist at Boston University, has found that the elite—regardless of political affiliation—tend to be “efficiency minded” as opposed to “equality minded.” He and several colleagues, including Daniel Markovits, the author of 2019’s The Meritocracy Trap, recruited a group of high-status liberals (Yale Law students) who identified as Democrats by a margin of more than 10 to one, and had them play a version of the so-called dictator game. Participants were given tokens redeemable for cash and were told they could give as many tokens as they liked (or none at all) to a fellow participant. An efficiency-minded person behaves more generously when helping someone else doesn’t cost her much—for example, when she’s told she needs to give up only 10 tokens for the other participant to get 20. But an equality-minded person is just as willing to share even if it costs her more. These categories can be used to predict, for example, whether a person will support redistributive tax policies.

Despite their progressive leanings, 80 percent of the Yale students were efficiency focused compared with 50 percent of a public sample.

These results “offer a potential new explanation for the muted policy response to increased income inequality in the United States,” the study authors wrote, because “the policymaking elite” are “far less inclined than is the general population to sacrifice efficiency to promote equality.”

Which brings us back to Monopoly. The most interesting part of the experiment, Piff said, came after, when players were asked to talk about what they had done to affect the game’s outcome. The obvious answer was that the fix was in and the rich player got lucky. But the rich players were almost twice as likely as the poor ones to talk about game strategy—how they’d earned their win. And so it goes in the world. Some of us are born better off than others, “but that’s not how people experience relative privilege or relative disadvantage,” Piff said. “What people do is attune to the things they’ve done: ‘I’ve worked hard. I worked hard in school.’ You start plucking out those things.”

Successful people tend to feel deserving of their lot. As a corollary, they tend to view less-fortunate people as having earned their lack of success. “So you’re more likely to make sense of inequality,” Piff explained, “to justify it, make inequality seem equitable.”

The psychologists Kraus and Keltner have found that people who rank themselves at the top of the social scale are significantly more likely to endorse essentialism, the notion that group characteristics are immutable and biologically determined—precisely the sort of beliefs used to justify the mistreatment of low-status groups such as immigrants and ethnic minorities. Countless studies, Kraus writes, point to an upper-class tendency toward “self-preservation.” That is, people who view themselves as superior in education, occupation, and assets are inclined to protect their group’s status at the expense of groups they deem less deserving: “These findings should call into question any beliefs in noblesse oblige—elevated rank does not appear to obligate wealthy individuals to do good for the benefit of society.”

A layperson perusing the literature on wealth and behavior might conclude that wealthy people are assholes, but that’s not really fair. “When I’m talking about these findings, it can just sound like flat-out rich-bashing, which I’m not interested in doing,” Piff said. One can be extraordinarily rich and not exhibit these patterns, or be quite poor and exhibit them. The effects that he and his colleagues describe are “small to medium,” and they are averages.

Further complicating our stereotypes is the fact that the most compassionate choice isn’t necessarily the best one. Wealthy subjects, regardless of politics, are prone to a more utilitarian mindset than their less-wealthy counterparts, which enables them, as Piff and his co-authors note in one paper, to “make dispassionate choices to serve the greater good that others might find quite difficult.” During a pandemic, for example, health authorities may have to weigh the likelihood that a given vaccine could severely harm a small number of recipients against the prospect that it could save millions of lives.

Piff’s Monopoly experiment was fun, but it didn’t come close to approximating our nation’s true economic divide. He had to make sure the games weren’t too rigged, or the poor players wouldn’t bother trying. I instead proposed a game in which I had the wealth of an average member of the top 1 percent, versus Piff’s middle-class net worth. I would get about $53 for every $1 in his pocket. But then we had a problem: If we gave Piff $500 so he could buy a few properties, I would have been due $26,500. A Monopoly set contains only $20,580.

We tried a new setup. Piff would still represent the middle class, and I’d be a run-of-the-mill top-10 percenter. He’d start with $500, and I’d get $4,500.

While we counted out our cash, Piff told me about the backlash his work has received over the years. Tons of hate mail. “I used to get a lot more. But I still probably get an email a day. I think most of it is political, because it seems so clearly ideologically driven.” I asked whether he thought his progressive values affected his research findings. “Probably inherently,” he admitted. They likely affect the questions he chooses to ask.

As he elaborated, I suddenly realized I’d screwed up my math. I actually should have had 10 times as much money as he had, not nine. “So I’ll just take another $500, okay?” He regarded me with a bemused expression. “I love that as I was doing some personally revelatory sharing,” he said, “probably some large proportion of your mind and attention was devoted to calculating out how much more you should’ve gotten.”

The nerve of the little people.

This essay was adapted from Mechanic’s forthcoming book, Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live―And How Their Wealth Harms Us All.