Through a series of deliberate decisions, with a lot of help and hard, neural network-expanding work (it’s more than a little challenging to consciously and ethically go from welfare to wealth), my family and I lived as the upper 5% live in America for about ten years. Charles Schwab, Willie Mays and Michael Douglas were our nearby neighbors. On early spring mornings, football superstars Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott would regularly show up at the nearby small private college running track laughing and chatting while they breezed by me without even a nod.
But whenever I would be involved with any kind of local businesses or have social interactions that required me to disclose my address (Atherton, CA), I could instantly feel a shift in the energy exchange – a kind of distancing defensiveness. In me and in other people. It didn’t feel good. Defense is the first act of war, as Byron Katie likes to remind us. The truth of her observation is readily apparent to our biology, not so much to our fear-based, opinion-filled brain, however.
Connected to this realization, one day I went to pick up my six-year old daughter at her private school. I was supposed to pick up three friends with her as well for a play date. When I got to the school there were no friends and my daughter was on the verge of tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. “Where are Ashley and Siobhan?” “They don’t want to play with me,” Amanda said, the tears now flowing freely. “How come?” “Because we’re rich,” came her plaintive reply.
So the first way having money made me mean was by reinforcing the illusion of separation. Being rich made me different, painfully and defensively and ironically… less than.
Interestingly, I didn’t ever actually feel wealthy even with a net worth of several million dollars. But over time, by the choices I was able to make and the lifestyle I began to live – accountants-lawyers-household help; an electronic gate fronting the long, tree-lined driveway; Hawaiian vacations several times a year; private schools; investment portfolios – the world of wealth began to exert its influence on me, and I began to unwittingly morph into the role of rich person. Meaning, much of my time each day was focused on my money and material possessions – how I was going to keep what I had and add even more to it. My brain began disconnecting from my heart. My connections to and concern for other people, took a seat way at the back of the stretch limo. As this research predicts, I began to move farther and farther away from other people and their work-a-day worlds. When that happens, writ large, as Nobel Prize Winning economist (and holder of 40+ honorary doctorates) Joseph Stiglitz points out, the world suffers enormously.
“Putting someone in a role where they’re more privileged and have more power … makes them behave like people who actually do have more power, more money, and more status,” says Berkeley psychologist, Paul Piff. “While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”
The second way having money made me mean is … it dampened my brain’s empathy circuits.
Finally, when I had a lot of money, like Bernie Madoff, I found my left brain’s language centers spewing more than its share of rationalizations: “The money is just a way of keeping score,” “Everyone looks out for Number One,” “There’s nothing wrong with a little ‘cognitive flexibility’.”
In my experience only sex and death surpassed money in distorting my thinking and my behavior. It was like all 15 Styles of Distorted Thinking and all 108 kinds of Cognitive Biases joined forces and had a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in my psyche. Every “rational” decision I tried to make simply ended up bordered by two contradictory thinking patterns. It was not only exhausting and crazy-making, but it made my life nothing like anything I wanted to live.
So, the third way money made me mean was by seducing me into even more unconscious and inauthentic self-absorbed behavior than I was already displaying before the money appeared. It primed my reward systems to be triggered for things that ultimately weren’t particularly rewarding, as this short article describes. Things like “winning” and “more” and “keeping score.” Not paying attention to things that truly matter – material things over people, for example – as I’ve shown over and over in this blog, comes with a significant opportunity cost. Often at the expense of a fully integrated brain demonstrating a robust Social Engagement System together with a wildly compassionate heart.