Thursday, April 05, 2007


Like A Bull In A China Shop

Richard Conniff, the author of The Natural History of The Rich: A Field Guide, presents evidence that having too much money and power can impair judgment, causing the rich and the famous to do all kinds of foolish things.

He cites an experiment conducted at the University of California Berkeley "devised to test the hypothesis that power makes people stupid and insensitive" or, as the researchers so tactfully put it, "disinhibited". The study brought groups of people into a room, put them through the paces of a sham social survey while assigning one member of the group the role of leader - the "power role". During the midst of the sham survey, the researchers brought in a plate of cookies. "Care to guess which volunteer typically grabbed an extra cookie? The volunteer who had randomly been assigned the power role was also more likely to eat it with his mouth open, spew crumbs on partners and get cookie detritus on his face and on the table." Yum! The behavior immediately reminded the researchers of the powerful people they had encountered in real life. "One of them, for instance, had attended meetings with a magazine mogul who ate raw onions and slugged vodka from the bottle, but failed to share these amuse-bouches with his guests. Another had been through an oral exam for his doctorate at which one faculty member not only picked his ear wax, but held it up to dandle lovingly in the light."
The researchers concluded from this experiment that those with the power concentrate so intensely on the potential rewards that could increase their sense of privilege that they ignore the people around them. This makes them act, in short, like reckless boors. Worse yet, the people around such individuals are often their underlings. So, instead of protesting the behavior of these alpha boors, the underlings abet them, only increasing that heedless sense of power and entitlement. As Conniff says, "As power increases, it fires up the behavioral approach system and shuts down behavioral inhibition."

Conniff adds, "The corollary is that as the rich and powerful increasingly focus on potential rewards, powerless types notice the likely costs and become more inhibited." We ordinary middle class folks, in other words, do not feel so entitled. We don't take the world so much for granted, and are more cautious in our actions and more mindful of their consequences. But that doesn't mean we couldn't change. "The bottom line: Without power, people tend to play it safe. Given power, even you and I would soon end up living large and acting like idiots. So pity the rich — and protect yourself."

Protect yourself, indeed. That is my main take-away from this article. It doesn't require a huge leap of the imagination to infer that the vast increase in money and power falling into the hands of our so-called "business leaders" is only intensifying the selfish and reckless behavior that so enhanced their wealth to begin with. The more money the CEO gets, the more money he wants, and he will do anything to get it. The richer he is, the more ill-considered his corporate decisions become. He will slash away vital elements of the corporate infrastructure, downsize away valuable personnel, even indulge in accounting fraud to make himself ever richer, ever more famous and, ahem, admired. Bernie Ebbers is simply the "cookie monster" of the Berkeley experiment writ large. From the halls of academic psychology comes yet another urgent reason to curb executive pay now.

"The Rich Are More Oblivious Than You and Me" from The New York Times
"Natural History of The Rich: A Field Guide" by Richard Conniff at

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