Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Looking at luxury turns people callous, or worse

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-11-26

A Harvard Business School research paper shows that exposure, even just "priming" (such as happens after exposure to advertising) may not turn people into arseholes… but just not give a shit about others.

So perhaps there is something in the right-wing shock-jock accusation about lefty ABC viewers.  By non-exposure to commercials for up-market goods, or to tabloid journalism about celebrities that often prime viewers and readers with the luxuries of the celebrities, ABC viewers do not have their concern for the plight of others extinguished.

"The Devil Wears Prada? Effects of Exposure to Luxury Goods on Cognition and Decision Making" (2009-11-25) announces the research paper by Roy Y.J. Chua and Xi Zou that includes the following in the abstract:

This paper demonstrates that exposure to luxury goods increases individuals’ propensity to prioritize self-interests over others’ interests, influencing the decisions they make.  Experiment 1 found that participants primed with luxury goods were more likely than those primed with non-luxury goods to endorse business decisions that benefit themselves but could potentially harm others.  Using a word recognition task, Experiment 2 further demonstrates that exposure to luxury is likely to activate self-interest but not necessarily the tendency to harm others.  Implications of these findings were discussed.

It provides experimental truths for the phenomenon shown in Citizen Kane, the man motivated to expose corruption and injustice who is gradually poisoned into callousness by wealth.

It fits in well with my post that got some libertarians quite riled ("Left "sensibilities", Right "social autism"" 2009-09-28), at least among those who don’t get constantly primed, watch the ABC, don’t notice the ads in the papers, are smart enough to run Firefox with the adblocker plugin.

What was the saying about it being harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel pass through the eye of a needle?

More from the abstract:

  • Luxury does not necessarily induce people to be “nasty” toward others but rather causes them to be less concerned about or considerate toward others.
  • Experiment 1 showed that when primed with luxury, people are more likely to endorse self-interested business decisions (profit maximization), even at the expense of others.
  • Experiment 2 further demonstrated that exposure to luxury is likely to activate self-interest but not the tendency to harm others.
  • Exposure to luxury goods may activate a social norm that it is appropriate to pursue interests beyond a basic comfort level, even at the expense of others. It may be this activated social norm that affects people’s judgment and decision-making.
  • Alternatively, exposure to luxury may directly increase people’s personal desire, causing them to focus on their own benefits such as prioritizing profits over social responsibilities.

8 Responses to “Looking at luxury turns people callous, or worse”

  1. Jayjee said

    Just out of interest Dave, what is your idea of a “shock jock” and particularly “right-wing shock jock”? How often do you listen to them and for how long have you been tuning in? Which of said jocks that shock do you listen to the most, like most/least?

  2. Jayjee said

    Do you have any data on the correlations between those who on the one hand read Vogue, own Mercedes Benz cars, Louis Vuitton luggage, Prada handbags, wear Armani, Burberry coats, rolex watches, and Jimmy Choo/Manolo Blahnik shoes, fly first/business class, and on the other hand consume/don’t consume ABC media?

  3. Dave Bath said

    Jayjee@1 : OK, by “shock jock” I wasn’t intending one medium, but rather the lot. Andrew Bolt would be an obvious example… and I read the Bolt occasionally (as well as see on The Insiders) just to see what Teh Rightards are telling Teh Masses.

    Jayjee@2: No further data. Indeed, I reckon the experiment is just the start of things that could be looked at. Perhaps it is relative luxury, so the level of “luxury” that affects your aspirational bogan (say, looking at a plasma TV ad) might not affect someone used to complete luxury around them… (Hmmm, story of Gautama Buddha walking outside the palace and seeing privation for the first time comes to mind).

    It’s an interesting line of inquiry… and there are obvious subtleties to investigate, which is why I didn’t come out with the “all rich people are bastards” line, as well as concentrating on what people are exposed to rather than what they own.

  4. Why is self-interest a bad thing? What does ‘at the expense of others mean’ in this survey?

  5. Dave Bath said

    Michael@4 : RTF paper.

    And as the paper points out, Global Financial Crises is one outcome. Also consider the maxim from software (at least in real-time and near-real-time software) that too much local optimization leads to a global pessimum (e.g. every subroutine trying to pig out on CPU, so overall responsiveness varies). Lesson from systems such as live DSP, national telecoms alarms management systems… etc.

    Here are the example scenarios in experiment 1:

    In scenario 1, participants were asked to imagine that they were the CEO of an
    auto-motor company that had just created a new model of cars that can bring tremendous profit
    for the company; however, production of this new car could also potentially pollute the
    environment. In scenario 2, participants were asked to imagine they were the CEO of a
    software firm that had created a highly profitable new software but the software still contained
    some bugs. Finally in the third scenario, participants imagined themselves to be head of an
    advertising firm asked to help market a new video game; doing so would bring the firm large
    profits but the video game could potentially induce violence in young boys

  6. The GFC was triggered by a mispricing of risk. The ones with the single most influential misguided self-interest were largely left-wing politicians trying to remain elected by continuing to uphold the operations of Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac.

    Sorry if I’m skipping the details and extrapolating forthwith – we’ve all seen this sort of stuff before – but what I’m getting at this is an issue of good values vs bad values. Is self-interest incompatible with good values? No. Can self-interest have a negative effect on good values? Maybe sometimes, but so can altruism. Is wanting something of high quality bad? No. This is really about an issue of values; self-interest being neither here nor there. If you didn’t have some level of self-interest you wouldn’t exist.

  7. […] This post was Twitted by peter_c_william […]

  8. Jayjee said


    ABC viewers are not exposed to luxury, but readers of Andrew Bolt are!!?? ROFLMAO. Dude, do you actually KNOW the ABC’s demographic and/or Andrew Bolt’s columns?

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