“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Rich Boy. “They are different from you and me.”
Fitzgerald’s narrator was referring to the way wealth can shape people’s character — but a new study suggests that people with particular personalities may also be more likely to become wealthy in the first place.
Writing in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, the team finds that millionaires have a unique pattern of personality traits compared to the rest of us — and this is particularly true for millionaires who made their wealth on their own.
Marius Leckelt from the University of Mainz and colleagues examined data from the German Socio-Economic Panel, an annual survey of German residents which includes a subsample of particularly wealthy individuals. The team were interested in participants’ net worth, rather than income, as they felt this provided a better measure of overall material resources. They calculated net worth based on information participants had given about their assets (property, stocks, privately-owned businesses and so on) and liabilities (mortgages, loans, etc).
The researchers classified people as “rich” if they had a net worth of at least €1 million, or “non-rich” if they had a net-worth of under €800,000. They also categorised participants as “self-made” if their wealth came primarily from self-employment or entrepreneurship; “inheritor” if their wealth came from gifts or inheritances; or “mixed” if they fell somewhere in the middle.
As part of the survey, participants had also filled in a short questionnaire looking at their Big Five personality traits, as well as a single measure of propensity for risk-taking.
The team found that the rich participants had a distinct personality profile from the non-rich participants: they tended to be more risk-tolerant, and were more open, extraverted and conscientious, but less neurotic. This constellation of personality traits was most prominent in the self-made rich participants, followed by those who had a mixed source of wealth; by contrast, the inheritors did not conform so well to this personality profile.
Within the non-rich sample, there was a small proportion of participants whose (relatively modest) wealth was classed as self-made. And, interestingly, these people showed a similar (although less pronounced) personality profile to their rich counterparts.
Overall, then, a personality profile consisting of heightened risk-tolerance, openness, extraversion and conscientiousness and lower neuroticism is associated with being rich. It’s not hard to see how being more diligent or willing to take risks could increase someone’s chances of becoming wealthy. But the authors point out that these traits don’t automatically lead people to a life of riches — after all, self-made participants in the non-rich group showed a similar personality profile without having a high net worth. And of course there are many other factors beyond personality that have an influence over people’s financial position.
The correlational design of the study also means it’s tricky to draw any definitive conclusions about cause-and-effect. It could be that being rich changes our personalities, as Fitzgerald suggested, rather than the other way around. But the authors argue that these personality characteristics do indeed seem to be a cause rather than consequence of becoming rich. That’s because this particular personality profile was much more prominent in self-made millionaires than in those who inherited wealth. If being rich was influencing people’s personalities, you’d instead expect those born into wealth to show the biggest differences in personality.
It remains to be seen whether there are similar differences in personality between the rich and non-rich in places outside of Germany. It’s not guaranteed that these effects apply in other countries with different cultures and economies. It would also be interesting to look at personality and accrual of wealth over time — this kind of longitudinal design could better answer the question of whether personality influences wealth, or wealth influences personality. I expect the reality is that it works both ways: after all, recent work has shown that our personality is much more malleable than we once thought. Only future research will tell.