Does a Life of Luxury Turn You Into a Jerk? Harvard Study Says It Could

Last Updated Jan 11, 2011 7:09 AM EST

If you're young and ambitious, you're probably not averse to imagining your future self enjoying the finer things in life. Whether it's designer clothes, fine cuisine, world travel or fancy cars, wanting an improved lifestyle drives many of us. But will reaching our material goals come with unexpected -- and unpleasant -- consequences?

Folk wisdom tells us the rich aren't like the rest of us, but now those who view the well-to-do as generally more callous and uncaring have some scientific ammunition. Research out of Harvard Business School suggests that experiencing a luxury lifestyle may make people less considerate.

Professor Roy Y.J. Chua and his colleague Xi Zou from the London Business School asked study participants to consider either luxury or mid-range goods and then to make decisions that required them to balance personal benefit with social responsibility -- whether to maximize profit at a car plant by polluting the environment, for example. People who think about luxury goods first "have a higher tendency to endorse self-interested decisions that might potentially harm others," conclude the researchers. Further experiments revealed that the "luxury-primed" group wasn't actually more inclined to harm others; they simply failed to consider them.

In an interview with Harvard's Sarah Jane Gilbert, Chua suggests the findings may illuminate a contributing cause of the financial crisis and suggest ways to limit the anti-social tendencies of reckless executives:

In the midst of the current global economic crisis, people are outraged by highly paid executives living in the lap of luxury while continuing to make self-serving decisions and ignoring the plight of others. To date, more than a year since the crisis started, despite much public outrage and threats to more strongly regulate the financial industry, there do not seem to be any substantive changes in their mindset. Bankers are still planning large bonuses for themselves.
One commonly proffered explanation is that these executives lack a moral compass, leading them to care only about themselves to the extent of hurting others. Our findings offer another perspective--the fact that these executives are surrounded by luxury did not help their decision-making to be more "other-oriented." Yet their seemingly "immoral" decisions stem not so much from a real desire to hurt others but more from over self-indulgence.
Perhaps besides limiting the size of bonuses, limiting corporate excesses and luxuries might be a step toward getting executives to behave more responsibly.
Do you find the study results convincing?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user yachtfan, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.