Our Views

Does wealth breed selfishness?

A guest blog by Dr. Julie A. Morton.

Provocative new research at the University of California, Berkley, suggests that those of means ARE different from their more humble brethren, and NOT in ways that would make one proud. According to studies conducted by social psychologist Paul Piff and his university colleagues, wealthy individuals are more likely to LIE, to CHEAT and to STEAL than their less fortunate counterparts. They are even more likely to do things as mundane as cutting off other drivers and refusing to wait for pedestrians at crosswalks.

The research points to a number of reasons, but three stand out:

1. Entitlement

The cars, the schools, the trips, the postal code, and the toys…they set up a paradigm of entitlement. Wealthy individuals sometimes feel they deserve to have things and this is extended to justify bad behavior like lying and cheating. This is witnessed more strongly with children of wealth who have grown up in an environment of abundance.

2. Isolation

Wealthy people are less dependent on maintaining social bonds to help provide basic necessities. The very ability to provide for themselves removes some of the behavioral barriers that would otherwise be kept in check. Wealth subsequently can be isolating and reduce or eliminate a negative conclusion from the consequence of social comparison.

3. Empathy

Social bonds are considered desirous and influential, but because of their ability to self-provide, they are not necessary glue for those with abundance.  As a consequence, wealthy individuals may display less empathy and be unconcerned about the impact of their behavior on others.

You may read this and think – that’s interesting – but it doesn’t apply to me. I have great values. I wasn’t born into money. I earned every cent I have. And you are probably right on all fronts. But, what about your children? Your grandchildren? How are you shaping them into the good people you are sure in your heart-of-hearts they truly are?

I work with a lot of families to who grapple with these questions. My advice is always to set your children up for success.


  1. Start by talking with them. A recent study by Dr. Margo Hilbrecht, revealed that the average Canadian parent only spends 35 minutes a day talking to their 5-12 year old child, and 5 minutes a day talking to their teen.
  2. Talk about things that matter – both to you and to your children. When possible, try to have a values based conversation. Talk about why you are making a decision to do something, buy something, or to support someone…or why you aren’t doing those things. Ask your child what s/he would do in your circumstance. Don’t multi-task. Really take the time to listen
    to his/her answer.
  3. Spend money on experiences with your children, not on the latest ‘material or consumables products.’ Go on trips; Go to plays. Go to movies your kids want to see (even ones in which you have no real interest); Rent out a rink and go ice skating; Go skiing; Let each child pick a restaurant and go for dinner there once a month. Help out at a food bank. Take an adult vacation together. Be creative. In choosing to spend money on experiences (especially ones that benefit other people) you help create meaningful, long-lasting and positive emotions[1] in your offspring.

This advice will not help you get them to clean up their rooms, but it may help them to be better, happier people.

Dr. Julie A. Morton, Principal, Conscious Legacy Consulting helps high net worth families create the personal, family and business legacies they desire. She will be our guest speaker at our Inside the Tent event on May 3rd entitled: Self worth. Net worth. What values will you pass on?

[1] Aknin, L.,B,, Dunn, E. W., Barrington-Leigh, C. P., Helliwell, J., Biswas-Diener, R., Kemeza, I., Nyende, P., Ashton-James, C., & Norton, M. I., (October, 2010). Prosocial spending and psychological well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal. NBER Working Papers National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc. No 16415.