This is a true story. There really is a Professor Piff. Paul K. Piff is a professor of psychology at UC Irvine.
He conducted an experiment with students in which they played a modified game of Monopoly. To paraphrase him, he says: We brought strangers together in pairs of two and decided, with a flip of a coin, who was going to be the “rich player” and who was going to be the “poor player.” The rich players got two times as much money at the start of the game.
They also got to roll two dice, instead of only one like the poor players. So they got to move around the board more quickly. That mattered because when they went past “Go” they would collect $200 faster, whereas the poor player collected only $100.
The inequities almost immediately became apparent. Within a couple of minutes, dynamics started to crystallize. The rich players started to behave a little differently. They became more dominant. They ate more pretzels! When moving their piece around the board, they became louder, starting to smack the board with their piece. They were significantly ruder.
They became less compassionate. They start to act as if they actually deserved to win.
When we watch patterns of human interactions, people who feel entitled and deserving of their success are more willing to pursue their own interests above the interests of others. They often engage in ways that undermine other people’s welfare, so that they can’t get ahead.
One of the questions Professor Piff asked afterward was, “Why did you win the game?” You can imagine that the rich players would say, “Well, I won the game because of that flip of the coin, so I had two times the advantage.” But none of the rich players — not one of them — attributed their inevitable success in this game to their luck in getting the privileged position in the first place! They attributed their success to their own skills.
In my own attempt to figure this out, I suppose one rationalization of the players was: I played according to the rules, and I won. But here is the problem: In life, we are all born into a set of rules, a set of “the way things are.”
For example, if my father beat me; I am more likely to beat my kids. If my parents are kind, I probably will be kind. Some people have wealthy parents; some don’t. Some are born with natural talents; some aren’t. We play according to the “rules” we were born into, unless we pull back and re-evaluate.
However, the professor continues, this is not only about people who are rich. The experience of being relatively better off than someone else seems to affect everyone in the same way. In the experiment, when people who were actually poor in real life won the toss, they acted the same as the richer students who won the toss. We translate perceptions and experiences of being better off than others materially into being better than others! The mind makes that translation it seems.
Another professor, economist Richard Wolf, said in a recent interview that since the beginning of the pandemic, the wealth of the 643 richest Americans grew by about $845 billion dollars. During the same period, 60 million Americans lost their jobs.
The advantage that the 643 people gave them 845 billion times the advantage, dollar for dollar, over the 60 million Americans. Professor Wolf says, “If those 643 people had distributed the money among those 60 million Americans, they would still have been the 643 richest Americans!”
I wonder if it occurred to any of them to contribute the money they gained to those who lost their jobs, or even considered how one might do this. I wonder what I did with my first check!
My bottom line: If you’re rich, it’s not your fault, and you can do something about it! If you’re poor, it’s not your fault, and you can do something about it!
You can check out Professor Piff’s amazing story in the Netflix documentary, “Capital in the 21st Century,” based on Thomas Pikkety’s book of the same title. Check out Professor Wolf’s book, “The Sickness is the System.”
The author lives in Santa Barbara.