The More You Have, the More You Want?
Victoria Beckham was in trouble.
According to popular media in the UK and elsewhere, the former Spice Girl, now multi-millionaire, applied for approximately 200,000 USD public funds to pay her staff of her fashion label during the COVID-19 lockdown. This news excited fury from the public. How dare a super-rich person with a family fortune of nearly half billion (which enabled her to buy a penthouse worth two million in Miami not long before) seek to profit from the furlough scheme funded by taxpayers aiming to protect jobs and livelihoods of ordinary people across the UK? Even though her application might be legal, people were annoyed. Why can’t the rich be more generous? Do they have to seek even more wealth?
People have long debated whether people who are less wealthy (the “have-nots,” the poor, the lower-class) or those who are relatively affluent (the “haves,” the rich, the upper-class) have a stronger desire for wealth. Intuitively, we might expect that compared to the “haves,” the “have-nots” should be more motivated to seek wealth to compensate for what they are lacking. However, we might also anticipate the opposite if we look at money-loving characters in popular culture. Consider for example Scrooge McDuck in Disney Comics or Mr. Krabs in SpongeBob SquarePants, or greedy CEOs and insatiable Wall Street bankers in the real world.
Captivated by this question, together with Jolanda Jetten and Niklas Steffens at the University of Queensland, I conducted a series of studies to investigate the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in their desire to seek wealth. First, we asked over 1,000 Americans to report their desire for wealth by indicating their agreement with statements such as “I would like to be wealthy” and “I want to have lots of money.” They also indicated their social class and income.
We found that both social class and income were positively associated with people’s desire for wealth. Namely, those who have relatively more wealth (or felt relatively wealthy) also had a stronger interest in seeking more wealth than others. This finding was replicated in a following study using data from the World Values Survey comprising over 150,000 participants across 78 countries and regions.
To find out what was causing what—whether “having more” actually causes a person to “want more”—we then conducted two experiments. Participants were invited to start a new life in a fictitious society, “Bimboola.” They were randomly assigned to either a “wealthy” group or a “less wealthy” group, and they were then asked to choose a house, a car, and a vacation to enjoy their life in Bimboola. To emphasize their imagined position, those assigned to the wealthy group got to choose luxury items such as stately mansions, expensive sports cars, and fancy trips like “a two-week super-luxury Swiss skiing holiday,” whereas those assigned to the less wealthy group only had limited choices of shabby houses, cheap old cars, and inexpensive holidays like “a half-day window-shopping in town.” Afterwards, participants reported their desire for wealth. Indeed, “having more” led to “wanting more”: those in the “wealthy group” reported a greater desire for wealth than those in the “less wealthy group.”
We also examined why “having more” leads to “wanting more.” Compared to those imagining themselves as less wealthy, participants who were imagining themselves as more wealthy agreed more strongly with statements such as “My wealth reflects the kind of person I see myself to be” and “My wealth defines who I am.” In other words, the “haves” were more likely to use “what they have” as a way to define and categorize themselves. Furthermore, this heightened usage of wealth in self-definition among the “haves” in turn drove them to seek even more wealth.
Our work helps to explain what underpins the often-observed greed among the rich: Their sense of self-worth seems to be built upon their riches, and this wealth-dependent self-worth, in turn, urges them to accumulate even more. The words of one super rich person, Donald Trump, sum up this idea: “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”
For Further Reading
Wang, Z., Jetten, J., & Steffens, N. K. (2020). The more you have, the more you want? Higher social class predicts a greater desire for wealth and status. European Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 360-375. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2620
Park, L. E., Ward, D. E., & Naragon-Gainey, K. (2017). It's all about the money (for some): Consequences of financially contingent self-worth. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 601–622. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167216689080
Zhechen Wang is a former PhD student in the School of Psychology at University of Queensland (Australia) and now a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University (China). His research focuses on the study of social class, economic inequality, and motivation.
Jolanda Jetten is an ARC Laureate Fellowship and Professor in the School of Psychology at University of Queensland (Australia). Her research focuses on the social psychology of inequality, conspiracy beliefs, and identity change.
Niklas Steffens is a DECRA research fellow and Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at University of Queensland (Australia). His research focuses on the social psychology of leadership, group processes, and identity change.