Capitalism’s Fatal Flaw: Wealth Makes Us Selfish (and Unhappy)

By Shlomo Maital


  I’ve always suspected it.  Now I know.  Capitalism’s fatal flaw is that wealth makes us nastier, more selfish, less ethical and less happy.  (Thanks to Facebook Friend Vic Nurcombe’s post, directing me to this material.)

   In his 2012 article published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences *,  Berkeley Scholar Paul Piff (and associates) find the following, based on extensive experimental research:

   “Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

   Piff even found that wealth causes people to literally take candy from a baby (from a dish on a table, said by the experimenter to be for “children in a later experiment”).   Those who drive a BMW are far less likely to stop for pedestrians at a cross-walk than those who drive a Kia. 

    And the key cause of all this?   Something known for many years, from behavioral economics.   The causality fallacy.   Human beings need to understand the world and how it works. So  THEY ATTRIBUTE CAUSALITY TO THINGS THAT ARE INHERENTLY RANDOM.   A great deal of wealth is due to luck.  Was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg super-brilliant (he was),  super-astute, super-creative, or did he have a great deal of luck in the viral manner in which Facebook spread, from a local Harvard class project to a global world-changing phenomenon?    People who are wealthy attribute their wealth to their own brains, creativity, energy, innovativeness (even though a huge portion of wealth is simply inherited);  so naturally, they attribute the plight of poor people to the inadequacies of the poor (they are dumb, lazy, stupid, lack hard work, and in general are worthless).  Even in Monopoly game situations, this effect occurs.  Those given favored wealthy positions in Monopoly behave AS IF they were wealthy in real life.  Those given disadvantaged positions in Monopoly behave far more generously and altruistically.

    Everyone knows that poor people tend to help one another a whole lot more than do wealthy people.  Now we begin to understand why.   

   And the ultimate irony?  As Piff notes,  those who are generous and altruistic are happier and live longer.   So all that “greed is good” stuff makes society more fractious, less cohesive, and makes the wealthy less happy. 

   This is the fatal flaw in capitalism.  Either wealthy people need to change their DNA, or we need to find a much better ‘hybrid’ system.     I urge you, dear readers, to download and read the original article in full.


* Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancatoa, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Dentona, and Dacher Keltner. “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior”.   March 13, 2012.