The Money Effect: A Social Experiment

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February 3, 2015

Writing the piece Martin Luther King Jr: One Teacher’s Lesson on Understanding, a few weeks ago reminded me of a social experiment I’d heard about in a documentary on PBS a while ago. It discussed another social division of power prevalent in our society, the wealthy and the “poorer” class. The studies researched adults, not children, but it made me worry about my kids just the same.

I have long struggled with balancing two ideas. My husband and I work so hard to provide for our children, not just things that money buys, but also experiences, comfort, stability and so on. On the other hand, our loving parenting seems to be creating a sense of entitlement in our kids. They feel like of course they should have an adventure after school rather than go straight home or, I’m sure anyone with kids in school has heard, “… but everybody else has one!” In the end, I feel like banging my head against a brick wall. Short of traumatizing them, how do I keep them level-headed?

And then we come to the documentary. Right away it shows us a pedestrian at a crosswalk on a busy street. Which cars will stop? Sadly, there is a good chance that the more expensive or prestigious vehicle will blow right through it.

The studies cited come out of UC Berkley, headed by researcher, Paul Piff. It showed that the wealthier a person was coming into the experiment, the more likely they were to lie, cheat, and steal even if the “prize” was something as simple as points toward winning a $50 gift card. They were less inclined to be generous or show empathy.

If you’re like me, you aren’t too worried right now. My kids probably won’t be feeling wealthy any time soon. The scary part for me as a parent came later, when Mr. Piff created a scenario in which participants FELT rich. He set up a Monopoly game in which one player received more money to begin, more privileges during play, and an extra di to roll. A coin toss decided which player that would be. Both contestants knew all of the facts as they started playing. Even so, as the game went on the “wealthy” participants took on more and more of the characteristics noted for the actual wealthy, no matter what their backgrounds were coming into the experiment. In fact many of them stated in a survey afterward that they “deserved” to win.

Essentially, no one is immune to the effects of money. This doesn’t mean that all wealthy people are bad. We see wonderful examples of extreme generosity from wealthy people all the time. But what made them that way? I hope that my kids experience success in their life which might mean they make a lot of money. How do I teach them now, so that later, no matter what financial bracket they land in, they will remain generous, empathetic, and considerate individuals?

I don’t have an answer yet. I just keep going back to the ideas I talked about in Developing Gratitude, awareness and getting outside the world we know as well as modeling it like in Let Them See You: Be Grateful. As much as it tempts me some days to just throw up my hands and tell them they can see what it really means to be hungry, or bored, or lonely, or whatever other dilemma afflicts them at the moment, I suppose a positive example is the best I’ve got so far.

If you’re interested in seeing a short PBS segment on this research discussing all of these same studies, here is a video.



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