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Why (You and I Think) Billionaires Suck

Written by Parmin Sedigh
Illustrated by Cheryl Nong

Hating billionaires has been a favourite pastime of us lowly mortals for a long time—and for good reason. “Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg agree to hold cage fight.”¹ There go the uber-wealthy doing ridiculous things once again. But where does this strong dislike come from? Are the one percenters truly different than the rest of us? Or is there something in the perception of the other 99% that fuels the dislike? It might be a bit of both.

How thinking about wealth changes behaviour

Let’s first explore how wealth can change people for the worse. A study led by Kathleen D. Vohs looked at how simply thinking about having money can change the way people act. The researchers first asked study participants to read essays about wealth. One group read an essay that discussed growing up with significant financial means while the other group read about growing up struggling with finances. They then told participants to solve a puzzle that was impossible—a fact unbeknownst to them. To measure participants’ willingness to ask for help, they brought another person into the experiment room. Participants were told that this individual had previously completed the puzzle, though they were in on the experiment. The experimenter went on to say that the participant could ask for help from this person whenever they’d like. Those who had read about having wealth took significantly longer to ask for help.²

But there is nothing wrong with being self-sufficient! Right? It seems that this phenomenon extends beyond simple self-sufficiency. The same research group asked participants to unscramble a series of words. One group unscrambled phrases related to wealth (e.g. “a high-paying salary”) while the control group unscrambled neutral phrases (e.g. “it is cold outside”). This was meant to prime participants with a “wealth-status” state of mind. After the experiment, all participants were asked if they could help the experimenter with some work on organizing datasets. Helping with each dataset would take about five minutes, they were told. On average, the money group volunteered 25 minutes as opposed to the 42.5 minutes offered by the control group. Taking it a step further, the research group found that participants exposed to ideas about money were significantly less likely to donate to a University Student Fund and more likely to want to work individually on a task rather than with a partner. This suggests that the mere thought of wealth can nudge us to behave in more “every-person-for-themselves” ways.²

But you may argue, these participants were solely exposed to ideas about money. Not to worry, the not-so-positive findings extend to the truly wealthy, too. In an experiment led by Jennifer E. Stellar, participants from various socioeconomic backgrounds watched two videos. One aimed to evoke compassion (depicting children with cancer undergoing chemotherapy), while the other was neutral (featuring patio walls). After watching each video, participants rated their emotions, such as compassion, on a ten-point scale. Interestingly, individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds showed greater compassion towards both videos. Plus, their levels of compassion jumped significantly more when transitioning between the neutral and compassion-inducing videos compared to participants from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.³

Beyond tightly controlled laboratory experiments, a real-world survey of very wealthy Americans—those earning $370,000 USD per year or with a net worth of 2.5 million USD or more—revealed that they tend to associate their self-worth more strongly with their wealth compared to relatively less wealthy Americans who are still well off, with an average income of $88,000 USD.⁴ No wonder billionaires are insufferable.

All the hate we cannot see

Setting aside the way people think or act when they have money, we may also be in part to blame for fueling the dislike. Researchers have suggested that those who hate on the super-rich may secretly aspire to be rich themselves. To reconcile this conflict in their minds, they tout these ideas that rich people are inherently bad. After all, you don’t need a PhD to know that criticizing the wealthy is often easier than striving to become wealthy ourselves.⁵

An experiment by Suzanne R. Horwitz and John F. Dovidio measured participants’ explicit and implicit attitudes towards the rich against attitudes towards the middle class. As expected, when asked explicitly through a questionnaire, participants expressed more positive views toward the middle class than toward the rich. However, when researchers measured participants’ opinions implicitly using an Implicit Association Test (IAT), there was a fascinating twist: Participants felt more positively about the rich than the middle class. The IAT consisted of measuring participants’ response times to associations of word pairs, such as “rich” and “good” versus “rich” and “bad.” Since participants responded more quickly to “rich” and “good,” it suggested a stronger association of implicit positive attitudes for the wealthy.⁶

All in all, our disdain for the rich may stem from a mix of their own behaviours coupled with our negative perceptions. Studies suggest that mere exposure to wealth can make individuals less likely to seek help, less compassionate, and more self-focused. Wealthy individuals themselves may also contribute to our negative perception by associating their self-worth with their wealth. However, many of us might also secretly desire to be like the rich we make fun of. Realizing we can’t, we vilify them, or better yet, we write articles like this one.


  1. 1. Hoskins P. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg agree to hold cage fight. BBC News. 2023 Jun 22 [accessed 2024 Feb 23].

    2. Vohs KD, Mead NL, Goode MR. The Psychological Consequences of Money. Science. 2006;314(5802):1154–1156. doi:10.1126/science.1132491

    3. Stellar JE, Manzo VM, Kraus MW, Keltner D. Class and compassion: Socioeconomic factors predict responses to suffering. Emotion. 2012;12(3):449–459. doi:10.1037/a0026508

    4. Klontz BT, Sullivan P, Seay MC, Canale A. The wealthy: A financial psychological profile. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. 2015;67(2):127–143. doi:10.1037/cpb0000027

    5. Klontz B. Why We Hate Rich People. Journal of Financial Planning. 2017;30(10):38–39.

    6. Horwitz SR, Dovidio JF. The rich—love them or hate them? Divergent implicit and explicit attitudes toward the wealthy. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 2017;20(1):3–31. doi:10.1177/1368430215596075

Written by Kumal Udamulla