This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Michael Kraus. It was originally published on Psych Your Mind on January 8, 2014.“I don’t know what they want from me, It’s like the more money we come across, The more problems we see.” —The Notorious BIG
Some people think that the rich live hard knock lives—I was first made aware of this hypothesis by these lyrics written by the ’90s hip hop icon the Notorious BIG. Admittedly, I haven’t given much thought to this idea all the way up until last December. It was at that time that a teenage drunk driver caused an accident, leaving four people dead. A judge sentenced the teenage boy to 10 years probation and therapy. The judge was lenient, in part, based on the defense’s claims that the boy was afflicted with a rare illness known as affluenza, which, according to the LA Times is “a syndrome that keeps someone from a wealthy background from learning that bad behavior has consequences.”
It seems the news media has caught the affluenza bug in the weeks since this story ran: Just this week I came across an article about affluenza in that paragon of journalistic integrity, the Huffington Post. The article reads “Though often used in jest, the term (affluenza) may have more truth than many of us might think.” It appears that some journalists are taking the term seriously (oh and hooray, I’m QUOTED in the friggin’ article). The same day this article appeared online I was asked to participate in an internet discussion about… affluenza (I declined). I wrote this blog post today, under a blanket shielding me from the polar vortex outside, to make one small point: NO NO NO NO NO!!!! Stop It!!! Affluenza does not exist!!! EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!
Four Reasons Why Affluenza Doesn’t Exist
I. Affluenza is not an illness or syndrome. Put your tiny violins away!
Before you break out the smallest violin in the world for all the suffering wealthy people in America, please consider that Affluenza is not a real syndrome/illness. How do I know this? So many reasons, but take this one: It’s not recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association as an illness or a mental disorder. I got this information from the LA Times article (linked above) buried in the last sentence of paragraph 621.
II. The wealthy kids are all right.
Growing up is hard, but don’t try to tell me that it is especially hard for wealthy kids. If you want to make that sort of argument, at least have some data to back up your claims. What’s that? You can’t find any data? Well that might be because the data suggests that being wealthy is actually kind of awesome for people. I will focus on two pieces of data that suggest being wealthy is a good thing for people, and not a cause of some terrible moral maladjustment flu-like state: First, people with money go to college in large percentages–with the top income quartile representing 74% of all top university students (here). Last time I checked, going to college is kind of important for a person’s future, and the wealthy have distinct advantages in this domain. The wealthy are also healthier than their non-wealthy counterparts– when examining mortality rates by any cause in the United States and in the United Kingdom, wealthy individuals live longer than their poorer counterparts (here). So, if you’re keeping score at home–that’s wealthy individuals having more access to university and living longer. Sounds just miserable. The Huffington post argues that wealthy people are negatively stereotyped, and that is true according to research–wealthy people are seen as low in warmth and trust. That’s accurate, but wealthy individuals are also seen as high in competence–that’s not so terrible. If we’re really talking negative stereotypes, the most negatively viewed individuals are the poor, who are seen as both low in warmth and low in competence (here). When it comes to negative stereotypes, the poor win (lose?) that battle too.
III. High social class does not make people “incapable of learning that bad behavior has consequences.”
Many of these articles that discuss affluenza link to research in psychology suggesting that wealthier individuals are “insensitive jerks”–and some research is suggestive of this possibility: For example, people of higher class backgrounds were more likely to cheat in a laboratory game than lower class individuals (here). As well, large scale surveys indicate that people with lower incomes give a higher proportion of their incomes to charitable organizations (here).
All this research points to a morality deficit among the wealthy. Well, it doesn’t actually, but it would if the differences in these behaviors between wealthy individuals and their poorer counterparts were fixed and unchangeable.The reality? Researchers have demonstrated several instances where the wealthy are equally as moral and charitable as their poorer counterparts. Just one example: My colleagues and I examined helping behavior for a distressed laboratory experiment partner by asking participants to work on longer tasks in the experiment to give this distressed person a break. We did this either after a neutral (boring) video or a video depicting images of suffering others. When upper income individuals saw the neutral video they helped less than their lower income counterparts. When upper income individuals saw the suffering video they helped equally (here). Wealth hardly makes people incapable of learning moral rules and consequences.
IV. Treating character deficits as a syndrome with an unknown etiology isn’t helping anyone.
There are so many reasons why it is a bad idea to suggest that rich people behaving badly is some sort of incurable disease. First, it’s a license for wealthy individuals to break laws without remorse. Second, it makes the application of the law even more unfairly skewed to benefit the wealthy. Third, it further damages the reputations of psychologists through the conjuring of a made up mental illness (thanks G. Dick Miller!).These are all bad things, but I think the worst problem with the term affluenza is that it focuses our attention on something that isn’t a problem for people. There are many real problems out there (like poverty for instance) and having a friggin’ truckload of money is NOT one of them–at least in terms of any kind of data driven metric related to real life outcomes.
So enough already with this affluenza nonsense. It doesn’t exist, it’s not supported by any psychological research, and the only people who catch affluenza are journalists looking to capitalize on advertising revenue from reader clicks. Let affluenza die, we’ll all be better for it! Some Future Reading on this Topic
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82(6), 878.
Kraus, M. W., Piff, P. K., Mendoza-Denton, R., Rheinschmidt, M. L., & Keltner, D. (2012). Social class, solipsism, and contextualism: How the rich are different from the poor. Psychological review, 119(3), 546.
Piff, P. K., Kraus, M. W., Côté, S., Cheng, B. H., & Keltner, D. (2010). Having less, giving more: the influence of social class on prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99(5), 771.