Affluenza was even used as a defense in a recent, highly publicized drunk driving trial in Texas, where a 16-year-old boy claimed that his family's wealth should exempt him from responsibility for the deaths of four people. The boy got off with 10 years' probation and therapy (which his family will pay for), angering many for what they saw as the law's unfair leniency.
Psychologist G. Dick Miller, who acted as an expert witness for the defense, argued that the boy was suffering from affluenza, which may have kept him from comprehending the full consequence of his actions.
“I wish I had not used that term,” Miller later told CNN. “Everyone seems to have hooked on to it.”
Whether affluenza is real or imagined, money really does change everything, as the song goes -- and those of high social class do tend to see themselves much differently than others. Wealth (and the pursuit of it) has been linked with immoral behavior -- and not just in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street. Psychologists who study the impact of wealth and inequality on human behavior have found that money can powerfully influence our thoughts and actions in ways that we're often not aware of, no matter our economic circumstances. Although wealth is certainly subjective, most of the current research measures wealth on scales of income, job status or measures of socioeconomic circumstances, like educational attainment and intergenerational wealth.
Here are seven things you should know about the psychology of money and wealth.
More money, less empathy?
Several studies have shown that wealth may be at odds with empathy and compassion. Research published in the journal Psychological Science also found that people of lower economic status were better at reading others' facial expressions -- an important marker of empathy -- than wealthier people.
“A lot of what we see is a baseline orientation for the lower class to be more empathetic and the upper class to be less [so],” study co-author Michael Kraus told TIME. “Lower-class environments are much different from upper-class environments. Lower-class individuals have to respond chronically to a number of vulnerabilities and social threats. You really need to depend on others so they will tell you if a social threat or opportunity is coming and that makes you more perceptive of emotions.”
While a lack of resources fosters greater emotional intelligence, having more resources can cause bad behavior in its own right. University of Berkeley research found that even fake money could make people behave with less regard for others. Researchers observed that when two students played monopoly, one having been given a great deal more Monopoly money than the other, the wealthier player expressed initial discomfort, but then went on to act aggressively, taking up more space and moving his pieces more loudly, and even taunts the player with less money.
Wealth can cloud moral judgment.
It is no surprise in this post-2008 world to learn that wealth may cause a sense of moral entitlement. A UC Berkeley study found that in San Francisco -- where the law requires that cars stop at crosswalks for pedestrians to pass -- drivers of luxury cars were four times less likely than those in less expensive vehicles to stop and allow pedestrians the right of way. They were also more likely to cut off other drivers.
Another study suggested that merely thinking about money could lead to unethical behavior. Researchers from Harvard and the University of Utah found that study participants were more likely to lie or behave immorally after being exposed to money-related words.
“Even if we are well intentioned, even if we think we know right from wrong, there may be factors influencing our decisions and behaviors that we’re not aware of,” University of Utah associate management professor Kristin Smith-Crowe, one of the study's co-authors, told MarketWatch.
Wealth has been linked with addiction.
While money itself doesn't cause addiction or substance abuse, wealth has been linked with a higher susceptibility to addiction problems. A number of studies have found that affluent children are more vulnerable to substance abuse issues, potentially because of high pressure to achieve and isolation from parents. Studies also found that kids who come from wealthy parents aren't necessary exempt from adjustment problems -- in fact, research found that on several measures of maladjustment, high school studies of high socioeconomic status received higher scores than inner-city students. Researchers found that these children may be more likely to internalize problems, which has been linked with substance abuse.
But it's not just adolescents: Even in adulthood, the rich outdrink the poor by more than 27 percent.