Millionaire syndrome: Why are rich people more cruel?

Millionaire syndrome: Why are rich people more cruel?

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

It is well known that rich people do not behave like other people. They are more secretive, more cunning, crafty, and cruel. But why are they like that? Is it because of their money?

There are many opinions on this subject. For example in 2007, Gary Rivlin described in the New York Times the lives of very successful Silicon Valley people. One of them, Hal Steger, lived with his wife in a million-dollar house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their net worth was about $3.5 million.

Assuming a reasonable return of 5%, Steger and his wife could invest their capital and live the rest of their lives on a passive income of about $175,000 a year. However, as Rivlin wrote:

“Most mornings Steger is already at his desk by 7 o’clock. He usually works 12 hours a day and another 10 hours on weekends”.

Steger understood the irony:

“I know a lot of people are wondering why persons like me would keep working hard when we’re a millionaires. But a few million in an account today doesn’t give you the advantages that it in the past”.

What exactly was meant by this phrase it remains only to guess. Steger was probably referring to the devastating effects of inflation (from 2001 to 2020, the $100 bill lost 34% in its purchasing power), but he also doesn’t seem to have realized how wealth affects his psyche. Once people get involved in the race for riches, they change. And this change is irreversible.

Plunged into the world of rich people, Rivlin also remarked:

“Silicon Valley is full of what you might call working class millionaires. These are people who, even though they are rich, still plow their backs off. To my surprise, they still work as hard as ever, even among the lucky few with cherished zeros in their accounts. And of course we should not forget about competition and envy: many successful new wave IT entrepreneurs understand that even though they got rich, they are still far away from Forbes list. They realize that their millions are nothing compared to the billions of someone”.

After interviewing a number of top executives, Rivlin concluded that those with a few million dollars often consider their accumulated wealth to be insignificant and indicative of their humble status in the new golden age, when hundreds of thousands of people have been much luckier.

The journalist gave another striking example: Gary Kremen, owner of $10 million and founder of Despite his solid capital, Kremen doesn’t consider himself rich. On the contrary, he understands the trap he’s fallen into:

“Everyone here [in high society] is looking over you. You’re a nobody here with your $10 million. If you’re a nobody with $10 million, how much does it take to be a somebody?”

Here you might think: “To hell these guys, their luxury offices, their limousines, and the private jets they fly”. Fair enough. But here’s the problem – these guys are already there. They’ve worked a hell of a lot harder to get where they are. They’ve become richer than 99.99% of the people ever living on the planet, but they still haven’t achieved what they think they should have. Without fundamentally changing their approach to life, they will never achieve their eternal goals. And if they ever realize the futility of their situation, it is unlikely that their friends and family will be too sympathetic.

Most people dislike the millionaires, to say the least; quite a few simply hate them. But what if we are talking about people who didn’t steal their wealth, didn’t inherit it, or get it by title, but earned it by their hard work, nerves, lost health, losses of loved ones? And now they have realized that they have taken only a step on a staircase whose edge cannot be seen?

What if the cold blood so often associated with the cream of society (let’s call it rich jerk syndrome) is not the result of being raised by a bunch of resentful babysitters, too many sailing lessons or repeatedly overeating black caviar, but an result of exacerbated disappointment (you got lucky, but you still feel like a nobody)?

We are told that those with more toys always win, that money always adds points to the scoreboard of life. But what if this tired story is just another swindle aspect, another game of the powerful clans?

In Spanish there is a word “aislar”. It means two things at once: “detach” and “isolate”, which is what most of us do when we get huge money. Where am I going with this? What do we do when we get rich? For example:

  1. We buy a car. So we don’t have to take the bus anymore;
  2. We move out of our apartment, from noisy neighbors, to a house behind a high fence;
  3. We stay in expensive, quiet hotels instead of the stupid guest houses where we used to be frequent visitors;
  4. We begin to exclude unnecessary people from our circle;
  5. We use the money to insulate ourselves from risk, noise, inconvenience.

But this insularity comes at the price of isolation. In order to protect our financial capital and provide ourselves with comfort, we have to give up casual encounters, to give up visits to many places in town (which we are not sure of) and casual interactions with strangers. We build a wall around ourselves!

What does loneliness lead to? That’s right: depression! It is no coincidence that today the incidence of this disease in the U.S. is breaking all records – every 4th resident suffers from depression (even though 100 years ago only 5% of Americans suffered from it). Sales of antidepressants have increased by more than 400% (!) in the last 20 years, and many people abuse them, which leads to even more mental and health damage.

In fact, a lot has changed since the twentieth century. We have all changed, you have changed, and so have I. Money changes us. If you’re living on more than $25-30 a day, you also have the traits described above, just not as pronounced. Why? Because you are also rich, relatively. Don’t believe me? Just compare yourself to the average African or Hindu.

Do you know how much the average Indian citizen earns? Only $0.5-1 per hour! And it’s paid for physical work!

When I was in India, it hit me that I too had become a rich jerk. I traveled around that country for a couple of months and you know what I did? I didn’t leave a tip, I haggled desperately, I saved every dollar, ignoring beggars as best I could. Living in New York, I was used to ignoring desperate adults and mentally ill people, but I had a hard time getting used to the crowds of kids who would gather right outside my table at a street restaurant, staring greedily at the food on my plate. But I was adamant.

In New York, I developed a psychological defense against the despair I saw on the streets. I told myself that there were social services for the homeless, that these people would just buy drugs or booze with my money, that they had created this situation for themselves. But none of that worked for Indian children. There were no shelters for them to go to. I saw them sleeping on the streets at night, huddled together like puppies to keep warm. They weren’t going to spend my money unwisely. They didn’t even ask for money. They just looked at my food with hungry eyes. And their emaciated bodies were cruel proof that they weren’t pretending to be hungry.

Several times I bought a dozen samosas and handed them out to Indian children, but the food would disappear in an instant, and a large crowd of children (and often adults) would remain around, reaching out to me and staring pleadingly into my eyes. I realized that with the money I had spent on a one-way ticket from New York to New Delhi, I could have pulled several families out of debt that had been dragging on for generations. With what I spent in New York restaurants a year ago, I could have educated some of those kids in school. Hell, with the money I had planned for a year of traveling in Asia, I probably could have built them a school.

I would like to say that I did some of that, but I didn’t. Instead, I developed a psychological barrier. I built a wall around myself to ignore the situation. I learned not to think about what I could have done. I stopped expressing the capacity for compassion on my face. I learned to step over lying bodies in the street (drunk, dead, or asleep) without looking down. I learned to do it because I had to (or because I convinced myself I had to). I realized that I was already infected with millionaire’s syndrome. But I don’t have millions.

We are not much different from rich people because we all live in the same society. It’s just that they have gone much further in some of the character traits that we find unacceptable.

Research conducted at the University of Toronto by Stefan Cote and his colleagues confirms that rich people are less generous than poor people, but this does not mean that wealth makes people stingy. It’s more complicated than that. Rather, it is the distance created by differences in wealth that seems to disrupt the natural flow of human kindness. Cote found that:

“Higher-income people are only less generous when they live in areas with pronounced inequality or when inequality is experimentally portrayed as relatively high”.

What does this mean? It means that rich people would be more generous if inequality were small. And that’s what happened in the twentieth century. But when income inequality becomes huge, altruistic beliefs are eclipsed by selfishness (Why help a poor man if he still won’t get out of this shit anyway?).

That’s why people with about the same level of capital and income prefer to live in the same neighborhood. That’s why we are more willing to help people if they seem to be our equals or similar to us. On the contrary, if a person seems too distant to us (culturally or economically), there is little chance that we will lend a helping hand.

The social distance separating the rich from the poor has existed for thousands of years. But never before in human history has the scale of inequality been so great. And it destroys us all psychologically and morally.

A one rich friend of mine recently told me:

“We succeed by saying “yes”, but when you get rich you have to say “no” more often. This is the only way to save your status, success, and wealth”.

If you are considered richer than the people around you, you will have to say “no” all the time. Why? Because you’re an eyesore, you’re like gold bullion in the middle of the road. Whether you are: in a Starbucks in Silicon Valley or in the alleys of Calcutta, you will be constant approached with requests, suggestions, ideas, and pleas. People will just see you as a bag of money that needs to be opened. And how not to get angry when this happens?

Of course, I am not defending the inhumanity on the part of many rich people. And it is sometimes impossible to explain in terms of psychology. There is even a series of studies conducted by American scientists who have concluded that:

  1. Rich people are more likely to lie (even as children);
  2. Rich people are more likely to take other’s merits for themselves;
  3. Rich people are more selfish and less ethical towards other people.

But that’s not all. It turns out that poor Americans donate more money than rich Americans. That’s what a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector found. It found that, on average, people with incomes below $25,000 a year typically donate just over 4% of their income to charity, while those earning more than $150,000 donate only 2.7% (despite the tax breaks that the rich can get).

If they have money and it’s not their last, why not give it to charity? Why are rich people more cruel? The writer Michael Lewis came to some interesting conclusions on this subject:

“On the surface, being on the higher step of social inequality, people have no incentive to follow the laws of ethics and morality. But the problem is actually deeper than that: it is caused by inequality itself and by the competition/struggle of the rich against each other. It changes their minds. They get so caught up in the race for money that they forget to care about anyone but themselves”.

Of course, there are exceptions to these tendencies. Many wealthy people are wise enough to cope with the difficulties generated by their good fortune without succumbing to the rich jerk syndrome. But this is rare, and these people are mostly of humble origins.

Perhaps an understanding of the debilitating consequences of wealth explains why some holders of enormous fortunes vow not to leave that wealth to their children. Several billionaires, including Chuck Feeney, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, have vowed to give all or most of their money to charity before they die. Buffett is known to intend to leave his children “enough to do something, but not enough to do nothing”. This idea is also supported by those whose fortunes are somewhat smaller.

But again, these are only exceptions. Most millionaires and billionaires cling to their capital hand and foot and will not give it up for anything. Moreover, some of them bribe scientists and entire institutions to produce justifiable studies saying that selfishness and greed are good. That winning the money game will bring satisfaction in life (hello, “Squid Game”).

However, judging by the vast accumulated experience of human history, this is not the case. Selfishness is sometimes useful for the development of civilization, but in most cases the development of society has not been due to individuals, but to effective collaborations.

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