Sunday, July 21, 2013

Wealth and dishonesty are correlated, but the arrow of causality isn't what you think

I was fascinated by a recent PBS video that covered research being done at UC Berkeley on wealth, privilege, and human behavior.  The upshot is that in controlled experiments, wealthy people tend to behave more selfishly and dishonestly than the poor:

Of course, people might think, that's how they got to be wealthy!  But if you draw that conclusion, you're committing the classic sin of mistaking correlation for causation.

The experimenters were able to disprove the "assholes become rich" hypothesis by running a simple experiment with the board game Monopoly.  They set up a rigged version, where one player gets to play normally, and the other player can only roll one die and only collects $100 when passing Go.  This gives the first player an enormous advantage, and makes his victory essentially inevitable.

The fact that the game is rigged should be apparent to anyone who has ever played it before.  Yet the "winners" showed classic a-hole behaviors--they became louder, more boisterous, started commanding other players, and more or less acting like junior-grade Donald Trumps.

It turns out that becoming wealthy--even in a rigged game of Monopoly in an experimental lab--tends to make you into a prick.

There are a couple of important conclusions I draw from this, which the aspiring startup entrepreneur should note:

1) If you think your wealthy investors can be dicks at times, you're probably right.

2) But, their dickery isn't a character flaw, at least not in the classical sense of an inborn trait; rather, they are simply acting like most humans would after achieving great success.

3) If you are lucky enough to achieve success, you need to be on your guard.  The fact that you're a humble, generous person now won't necessarily carry over.  Believing that you're the exception to the rule is the kind of hubris that makes a descent into jackassdom even more likely.

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