PRN: The Natural History of the Rich

Physician's Money Digest, December15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 23

The Natural History of the Rich

There was so much useful content leftover from my last column centering on Richard Conniff's interesting (Norton; 2003), I thought I'd stay on point another week and save some of you folks the time and money of a peruse. Isn't money talk fun?

Affluent Characteristics

• The rich are people with extreme self-interest characteristics, such as single- minded determination to impose their vision on others and an often irrational belief in seemingly unattainable goals. They may be apparently blind to consequences and persist in the face of repeated failure, to the point of behaving as if there are no rules preventing the acquisition of their goals. They possess zeal, pushing others behind or to the side. In a way, this description sounds like premeds.

• Dominant people tend to stand straighter and move expansively. Often, they are physically bigger and test for higher testosterone levels. These people tend to make more money.

• Great fortune builders are often screamers, keeping their eyebrows up, their chins up, and their gaze direct, except when subordinates are speaking, in which case they frequently look away. It's just like being in prison; if you develop a reputation for ferocity early on, then you'll seldom have to defend it. Dominant people know that winning little contests is a requisite for winning big ones, so they will fight fiercely for trivial distinctions. You get the idea.

• Balzac said, "Behind every great fortune there is a crime" (ie, a properly executed one).

• The aim of this behavior set is the control of resources, including both money and people.

• Successful businesspeople and those with close spousal relationships are often mutually exclusive.

• Wealth doesn't change people so much as the way that others treat them changes.

• For the rich, flattery is so important that it is institutionalized, often into a network of mutual obligation.

Societal Standing

• Society's defining symbols always change. For millennia, the apex was land ownership, skill with weapons, and mobility of horses to hold the land. In modern society, it is control of companies, facilitated by knowledge and private jet mobility.

• Society expects the rich to make displays proportionate to their wealth. The art lies in doing so primarily for the benefit of the same-class cognoscenti. Attempts to falsify your standing have led to such local sayings as, "He's all hat and no cattle."

• All families are old. It's just that the rich often have their family history documented and sometimes use the information for social domination purposes.

• All of us who live in America and have achieved any success have many of these attributes to some degree or other. For those of us who do not make up the elite, wealthy set, the pertinent question on this subject is, did we limit ourselves by picking a profession that— hopefully—places the acquisition of wealth in a secondary position to other values, or were we selected away from the competition for great wealth by the mix of characteristics that we have?

Jeff Brown, MD, CPE, a practicing physician who is a partner on the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Alumni Consulting Team, teaches in the Stanford School of Medicine Family Practice Program. He welcomes questions or comments at