Systems and Inequality part 2: A Rigged Game of Monopoly – Day 53

In the mid 2000s, Paul Piff and a group of researchers from Cal Berkeley began a series of tests and experiments related to the impact of money and income on a person’s behavior. The primary (or perhaps just the most well known) experiment involved a game of rigged monopoly. The researchers brought over 100 sets of strangers into the lab and, with the flip of a coin, determined the resources each player would receive. The winner of the coin toss would start with twice the money, received twice the amount of money when passing Go, and got to roll two dice to the other player’s one. Each game would last for 15 minutes as the researchers studied facial expressions, body language, and the overall behavior of each of the players.

Slowly, but surely, researchers watched as the player who had been given more resources dominated the game. But more importantly, researchers watched as, one by one, the player destined to win began to alter their behavior. The players had recognized before the game started that one had more resources than the other, but recognitions of this sort soon began to fade. The player with more resources began to flaunt their money, move their piece around the board more emphatically, and make more displays of celebration as they began to collect more and more. These players were also more prone to make comments to the other player about their impending demise in the face of the winning player’s dominance. Researchers had also placed a bowl of pretzels on the table, and watched as the consummatory behavior of the winner grew as the game progressed, with the winning player eating more and more of the pretzels.

In a presentation at TEDxMarin in 2013, Paul Piff explained how the players who’d won talked about their victory:

And here’s what I think was really, really interesting: it’s that, at the end of the 15 minutes, we asked the players to talk about their experience during the game. And when the rich players talked about why they had inevitably won in this rigged game of Monopoly …
They talked about what they’d done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game.
And they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation — including that flip of a coin — that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place. And that’s a really, really incredible insight into how the mind makes sense of advantage.

How interesting is it that someone who was not only awarded more resources at the beginning at the game, but actually recognized and voiced this fact, would feel that their Monopoly prowess was the deciding factor in their game. Not even the reminder every time they rolled the dice that they had a greater opportunity to advance seems to have broken into the winners’ mindsets.

The rigged Monopoly game only served as one example from Piff and co.’s studies. Piff goes on in his TEDx presentation to talk about examples ranging from which types of cars are more likely to stop for a person trying to enter a crosswalk to the likelihood that a person will cheat on a game for the chance at a $50 prize to observing who was more likely to take candy from a jar that they had been explicitly told was for children. In each case, the researchers found a correlation between people who had more wealth being more likely to break the rules for their own gain:

What we’ve been finding across dozens of studies and thousands of participants across this country is that as a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increase. In surveys, we’ve found that it’s actually wealthier individuals who are more likely to moralize greed being good, and that the pursuit of self-interest is favorable and moral.

Piff goes on to make an interesting statement:

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s only wealthy people who show these patterns of behavior. Not at all — in fact, I think that we all, in our day-to-day, minute-by-minute lives, struggle with these competing motivations of when or if to put our own interests above the interests of other people. And that’s understandable, because the American dream is an idea in which we all have an equal opportunity to succeed and prosper, as long as we apply ourselves and work hard. And a piece of that means that sometimes, you need to put your own interests above the interests and well-being of other people around you. But what we’re finding is that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to pursue a vision of personal success, of achievement and accomplishment, to the detriment of others around you.

Look back at the middle of the previous quote: “…in fact, I think that we all, in our day-to-day, minute-by-minute lives, struggle with these competing motivations of when or if to put our own interests above the interests of other people.” Piff’s “we” is very specific to a certain group of people: “And that’s understandable, because the American dream is an idea in which we all have an equal opportunity to succeed and prosper, as long as we apply ourselves and work hard.” The idea that someone would be willing to break the rules for their own gain is not solely an American idea – there is plenty of measurable corruption worldwide to understand this. There is something very specific, though, about the “American dream” that does seem to set Americans apart from the rest of the world in this rule-breaking (and justification) category.

Piff cites numerous examples of people who are actually wealthy being more likely to break the rules or have a larger self-interest in all of the different studies, but he does not stop with the concrete measurability. He also cites an instance of people who “felt wealthy” being more likely than people who “felt poor” to advance their own self-interest by breaking the rules. With thoughts held by many Americans that the U.S. is the best, most prosperous country in the world, and that the American dream of success is available to everyone, how many Americans “feel” wealthier than others in the world, or feel more entitled to attain success through whatever means are necessary? Without any evidence, the answer is unclear; however, testing similar to Piff’s between people of different nationalities and Americans would likely lead to results that would surprise most Americans.

Approaching life with a whatever-it-takes mentality towards success is not the only insight to come out of this study. Wealthier people are not only more like to cheat in pursuit of their own self-interest, but are also more likely to feel entitled to their wealth, view greed in a more positive moral light (as stated above), and be less generous with their money. One of the tests done by the researchers was to give individuals the equivalent of ten dollars (Piff’s words – I’m not sure how this is different from giving them $10), and to tell the individuals that they could give a portion of the money to a person in need who the would never meet. Individuals with less means gave 44% more of their money away than wealthier individuals. This example correlates to other studies related to wealth and giving, which have not only shown that wealthier individuals give less (as a percentage of income) than poorer individuals, but that giving from wealthier individuals decreased after the 2008 recession while giving from poorer individuals increased during the same time period.

So the rich seem more likely to be dishonest to get more – so what? Many wealthier people don’t behave this way – in fact, some give tens or hundreds of millions of dollars away. However, there is more here to analyze. Piff and co.’s research gives interesting insight into the habits of people based on their income, but this is only one part of a bigger system that we will continue to cover in the coming days.


Wealthy Americans Are Giving Less Of Their Incomes To Charity, While Poor Are Donating More – Forbes
Do Wealthy People Give Less to Charity? – Cal Berkeley
Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity – The Atlantic


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