Wealth, Entitlement and An Inflated Self

Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 9.55.27 AMResearchers at Berkeley have found that higher social class is associated with an increased sense of entitlement and narcissism. This is another study in the realm of “demonstrating the obvious,” but that’s good, because it gives research data underpinnings to clinical observations. The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, also found that promoting values that reflect a sense of equality with others had a diminishing affect on their narcissism. And that’s especially interesting because it links with other studies that find that empathy and compassion are innate; we’re “hardwired” that way, as this recent study finds, for example. But that capacity can be dulled or diminished by socially conditioned values and rewards, which then shape our conscious sense of self. We then define ourselves in ways that limit and constrict our sense of who we’re capable of being.

The current study about social class and narcissism was summarized by Eric W. Dolan in The Raw Story:

Climbing the economic ladder can influence basic psychological processes within an individual. According to a new study , wealth tends to increase a person’s sense of entitlement, which in turn can lead to narcissistic behaviors.

(According to) Paul Piff of the University of California at Berkeley “there is something about wealth that gives rise to a sense of entitlement, a sense that one deserves more good things in life than others, which in turn gives rise to an increased or inflated sense of self-importance, vanity, grandiosity, and omnipotence (narcissism).”

“Narcissism is a multi-faceted and complex construct, but that wealth is specifically associated with it suggests that as a person’s level of privilege rises, that person becomes increasingly self-focused – in a sense, becoming the center of their own world and worldview,” he explained. “The studies in the paper measure narcissism in a whole host of ways, including measuring how likely someone is to stare at their reflection in a mirror (wealthier people do that more often). Even students who come from wealth, but have done little to create their own wealth (yet), report more entitlement. This suggests that wealth shapes an ideology of self-interest and entitlement that’s transferred culturally from one generation to the next.”

Piff conducted five experiments to investigate the associations between social class, entitlement, and narcissism. The first experiment consisted of a survey that measured levels of entitlement and socioeconomic status. Piff found higher social class was associated with an increased sense of entitlement. Upper-class individuals were more likely to believe they deserved special treatment and feel entitled to “more of everything.” They were also more likely to believe that if they on the Titanic, they would deserve to be on the first lifeboat.

In the second and third experiments, Piff used other surveys with different measures of entitlement and socioeconomic status to confirm his initial findings. In the fourth experiment, Piff discovered that upper-class individuals were more likely to look at their own reflections in a mirror, even when controlling for self-consciousness. The final experiment found that exposing upper-class individuals to egalitarian values reduced entitlement and decreased narcissism.

“Also, simple interventions can reduce narcissism among the wealthy, suggesting their narcissism is neither innate nor fixed. When wealthier participants in one study were asked to think about three benefits of treating others as equals, they subsequently became less narcissistic. Egalitarian values can reduce narcissism. The implications of this are fairly profound, I think.”

The Berkeley researcher has received a great deal of attention for his studies on how wealth influences behavior. His previous research found upper-class individuals were more likely to lie and cheat when gambling, cut people off when driving, and endorse unethical behavior in the workplace.