I remember playing various board games as a kid with my family and friends…games like parcheesi, The Game of Life, and Monopoly. And of all the games we played, it was that last game on my list that I liked the least (although I would be initially enthusiastic about playing it).
Even though I was young (and lacked the technical vocabulary to describe the phenomenon), I would quickly become aware that the game, as it progressed, seemed to cause a change in the behavior of those who were “winning” (as to my behavior: I cannot recall ever winning the game, and I mostly found it boring)…a change that I would later identify as more cut-throat (or ruthless), and, they were less likely to forgo collecting their due rent from those who had little capital. And, of all the games we played, Monopoly seemed to be the one in which people were more likely to “cheat”, if only in small ways.
But as I was no psychologist or sociologist, I just chalked that all up to the nature of the game…but I retained my distaste for Monopoly (and monopolies) to this day.
A Game of Privilege
Now comes social-psychologist Paul Piff (of the well-known research team of Keltner and Piff) who focuses most of his research on social hierarchies and how these impact our lives and society in general.
In this TED Talk held at TEDxMarin (as in Marin County, CA), Piff discusses a recent series of behavioral experiments centered on the game of Monopoly. These experiments –conducted at the UC Berkeley campus — involved the secret recording of multiple “rigged” games of monopoly in which one randomly-chosen player in a randomly selected group was given certain a priori advantages…such as: twice the money, greater ability to move around the board (more than two dice!), and more access to resources (higher bonuses for passing ‘go’).
According to Piff, the goal here was to study how “a privileged player in a rigged game behaves”. After just fifteen minutes of play for each game, the researchers began noticing “dramatic” behavioral changes in the advantaged players…observed changes ranged from louder, more forceful movement of their game piece (and other “displays of power”) to seemingly trivial things like eating more pretzels.
In one humorously shocking (or shockingly humorous) example, one of the advantaged players, after successfully winning the game, was heard explaining what he had done, strategically, to succeed and win. This example speaks to “how we make sense of advantage”, says Piff
Over all, the most consistent behavioral change observed is one that may not come as a great surprise to those of us with more worldly experience…manners, or rather, the lack thereof…
The Impact of Social and Economic Hierarchies
According to Piff, the dramatic changes observed in these Monopoly experiments corroborated well with other research he and colleagues had conducted on wealth and what’s known as prosociality (our tendency to cooperate with others and generally concern ourselves with others’ well-being). These previous studies sought to answer a basic question: of two groups — rich and poor — who is more likely to help a stranger?
Using money games (in which some were given more money than others), jars of candy (reserved for sick children), and even hidden camera experiments with real automobile traffic (which cars were more likely to obey the law — stop at a cross walk — for a pedestrian), results of all of these showed a general tendency for wealth and hierarchical status to increase one’s sense of entitlement (and are “more likely to prioritize self-interest over the interests of others”) …while simultaneously decreasing one’s empathy and concern for others.
What’s more, as this hierarchical inequality increases, the impact on individuals and societies — in terms of health, education, social trust, community, incarceration, etc — is profound…general social inequality has a way of spreading and increasing in tandem with the increase in economic inequality.
But do not let all this dishearten you…Piff concludes his talk with a surprising quote from one of the world’s richest men and some inspiring efforts by the privileged class to alleviate this growing social inequality.
So then, watch this truly absorbing and provocative TED talk entitled ‘Paul Piff – Does money make you mean?” (and see my Author’s Comment, below).
Two quick comments here…As a fair-minded individual, I note that a certain “game psychology” operates with Monopoly (and perhaps every other game)…that is: when we consent to play a game, we also consent to the rules, and to the goal, of that game (which is to monopolize)…we also consent to the idea of a winner and a loser…and who willingly consents to a game to become a loser in that game? (for a great reference work and a philosophy of games, see ‘Finite and Infinite Games‘ by James P. Carse…it might change your life).
Lastly, as to the charitable organizations noted in the video (“helping to alleviate the impacts of social inequality”)…this effort (assuming that it is sincere) would be far better served — in terms of quickly reducing inequality — if the “privileged” members of these groups spent their time and money pressuring Congress to raise the income tax rate on the richest Americans (and their corporations)…and increase the capital gains tax while they’re at it The tax revenue can be earmarked for social programs. This will more effectively reduced income inequality, which is the source of all these other inequalities noted in this video.
Top Image: catwalker / shutterstock.com