Does Wealth Breed Narcissism: The New ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall’ Study

BY Paul Solman  August 21, 2013 at 10:12 AM EDT

Berkeley social psychologist Paul Piff and his researchers reenact their mirror study to demonstrate the relationship between wealth and narcissism.

Paul Solman: We first met Paul Piff, a social psychologist and post-doctoral scholar in the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley, when shooting our two-part Making Sen$e series on the psychology of wealth and the connection between money and happiness at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

We also reported more of the Center’s research in a transcript of our conversation about happiness with Christine Carter, Berkeley sociologist and director of the Center’s parent program. Read more on why those who feel they have less give more in a transcript of our conversation with Dacher Keltner, director of the Center. (Keltner’s book, “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” is highly recommended.)

In his peer-reviewed experiments at Keltner’s center, Piff has found that people who feel less well-off, whether because they are rich or because they’ve been assigned that role in the lab, tend to act more charitably. Paul Solman even gained some insight into his own behavior when playing monopoly with Piff. See the experiment at this point in “Money on the Mind,” which happens to be our first video to have gone bacterial on YouTube. When we were at Berkeley, Piff also told us about his ongoing research into the relationship between narcissism and wealth. We had asked Piff and his researchers to illustrate one experiment in particular, which we call the “mirror, mirror on the wall” study, and which has been embargoed until now. You can see what it looked like above, but since the identity of the original subjects is private, be aware that this is a reenactment by the researchers.

We asked Piff what led him to study narcissism, why it’s a critical personality trait and why it seems to make individuals feel psychologically entitled. Here’s his answer:

Paul Piff: Narcissism is a tremendously important social variable . In many ways, it indexes how people see themselves in relation to others; it’s a critical piece of personality. People who are narcissistic have inflated views of themselves: they’re more egocentric and often express real-world behaviors like selfishness, greed, aggression, competitiveness, self-centeredness, impoliteness, unfriendliness, and the list goes on. Psychological entitlement, or how deserving of things someone feels relative to others, is a central piece of narcissism. One measure of this entitlement is the sentiment, “If I were on the Titanic, I would deserve to be on the first lifeboat!”

I wanted to test the relationship between wealth, entitlement and narcissism, guided by our earlier work suggesting that people who are wealthier, or who feel richer, tend to be a little more self-focused and self-interested than others. We found that wealthier participants reported significantly greater psychological entitlement. They were more likely to see themselves as deserving of good things in life and entitled to a bigger piece of the pie than others. We even found that students whose parents were wealthier and better educated (in other words, people who hadn’t done anything themselves to be wealthy) felt more psychologically entitled. Further, we found that wealthier individuals not only feel more entitled, but they also report more narcissistic tendencies on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, endorsing statements like, “I like to be the center of attention,” “I find it easy to manipulate people” and “I like to show off my body.”

Vanity is a big piece of narcissism: wealthier participants we studied were more likely to behave narcissistically by opting to look at themselves in a mirror. Above and beyond gender (women look at themselves in the mirror more than men) and ethnicity, wealth consistently had this impressive effect such that the wealthier you were, the more entitled and narcissistic you were.

I’m following this work up now with all sorts of new studies. I am interested in what it is about wealth and feeling wealthy that has these effects. I am also looking at whether entitlement can drive different attitudes toward wealth redistribution. For instance, feeling deserving of what you have may make you less likely to want to share wealth with those less fortunate.

I am also looking at the effects of various psychological manipulations to reduce levels of entitlement and narcissism. One study in the current paper found that reminding wealthier participants of the benefits of treating others as equals actually made them less narcissistic, suggesting that wealth reduces egalitarianism and actually gives rise to an ideology of self-interest; that’s not necessarily always a bad thing, but when allowed to go uncurbed, it could have a whole host of pernicious social effects.


This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions