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Does money corrupt? A controversial study explores the effects of money on human behavior

Published: Friday, July 19 2013 9:23 a.m. MDT

Does money corrupt?

What is it about being wealthy that might make people behave differently?

Is it the feeling of societal advantage? Or maybe it's the belief that wealth is proof of hard work, and therefore comes with certain entitlements.

A PBS "News Hour" report titled “Money on the Mind” explores these concepts and more, attempting to zero in on how and why money affects attitudes and behavior.

Citing the research of Paul Piff, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, the report claims that having more money typically leads to more aggressive, selfish and “morally reprehensible” behavior.

By asking the study’s participants to perform seemingly mundane tasks, like playing Monopoly and other dice games, the researchers tested what the mind does to make sense of advantage or disadvantage.

The results were rather alarming.

“You become less attuned to all of the other things that contributed to you being in the position that you’re in,” Piff said about the “advantaged” test subjects in the report, noting that the participants given the upper-hand showed sings of increased greed and a lack of empathy.

Another startling conclusions from the study was that wealthier people are more likely to endorse unethical behavior, such as stealing at work.

“One of the things that money does is it comes with a set of values,” UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner told "News Hour." “One of them is (that) generosity is for suckers and greed is good.

“But it turns out there is a lot of new data that shows if you’re generous and charitable and altruistic you’ll live longer, you’ll feel more fulfilled, you’ll feel more expressive of who you are as a person. You probably will feel more control and freedom in your life.”

The video points out, however, that there are plenty of billionaires — such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — who have pledged to give their wealth to charity, showing that the findings are, at minimum, not universal.

The study — and its researchers — have come under heavy criticism for its controversial conclusions.

“We published these studies in relatively obscure scientific journals, and literally the next day we were getting hundreds of emails from around the world, and a lot quite hostile,” Keltner told the segment’s host, Paul Soloman.

When charged that the findings were tainted by a liberal agenda to criticize the rich, Piff comments that he hears the “Berkeley, idiot scientist who’s finding what they expect to find” criticism all the time.

“Let me tell you,” he told Soloman, “We did not expect to find this.”

“Our findings apply to both liberals, conservatives,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re wealthy, you’re more likely to show these patterns of results.”

JJ Feinauer is a graduate of Southern Virginia University and a content writer for the Moneywise page on DeseretNews.com. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: @jjfeinauer.

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