The Creation of a Wealth Addict

The brains of very successful stock traders produce dopamine, leading them to increase their risk taking. Eventually, the normal incentives for happiness are minimized for a substitute: money.

Some stock traders (and I want to emphasize only some) either have inherent gambling addictions or develop them when they make successive winning bets — often due more to luck than effective analytic scrutiny. Then, their brains produce dopamine in response to their risk taking which makes them feel exhilarated. This can become a perpetual cycle, often leading to failure because bigger and bigger risky bets must be made to further fuel their dopamine charge. The London whale case is a recent example.

The area of the traders brains affected is the same as drug addicts. As a group, these two sets of individuals respond positively to illegal drugs and risk taking, but less to normal incentives for happiness such as positive feed-back from day to day relationships.

Enter Sam Polk, author of “For the Love of Money” in the Sunday New York Times (Jan. 19, 2014). He confesses that when he made a $3.6 million bonus on Wall Street at 30 years of age with no children or debt, he was angry. This was because he wasn’t making enough money according to his standards. It was as though money was goosing his dopamine system, not necessarily risk, though the latter could play a part in gaining it. Earlier, he had used alcohol and drugs, as his counselor explained to him, “to blunt the powerlessness I felt as a kid…”

When Polk started making money, but sometimes still not as much as his colleagues, it didn’t make him happy.

“I might be using money the same way I’d used drugs and alcohol — to make myself feel powerful — and that maybe it would benefit me to stop focusing on accumulating more and instead focus on healing my inner wound,” he learned from his counselor.

Ultimately Polk’s inner wound was healed. Not because of what his counselor said, but because of what he observed on Wall Street. As he puts it, his “hugely wealthy bosses” just couldn’t get enough money. They criticized government regulations that would force them to be fairer to investors; they were against codes of conduct that would limit their bonuses, etc. He likens their behavior to addicts when the heroin runs out.

“…in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth,” Polk wrote.

Though Polk didn’t say what those limitations are, I can imagine he might be referring to a sort of emptiness, a lot of money and what it could buy, but lack of time and energy to build quality relationships to enable others to care for them. I haven’t seen the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, but would guess it is portraying this or a similar scenario.

Wealth addiction, the author relates, was described previously by Philip Slater, who not only wrote plays, but also was a sociologist. In his 1980 book, Slater said that researchers paid little attention to wealth addiction in the past. This is also true today.

The alarming part for wealth addicts is that all this money just makes them want more even though they have more than most humans could spend in a lifetime. Like traders who make bigger and bigger bets to seek satisfaction and drug addicts who keep upping doses to gain a dopamine high, it is only more and more of the same that makes them temporarily content. Then, the cycle must be repeated again. The normal incentives for happiness, like associations with friends and family, are minimized for a substitute: money.

Polk says a sense of enough money on Wall Street is rare. Whether he is right or wrong, redirecting priorities among some of the world’s wealthiest people could be beneficial not only to them (by making them happier) but also to others. Theoretically, this could be achieved through individual or group counseling in individuals who wanted a change when they realized their lives were empty in spite of their wealth.

I cannot help but wonder if it is only a matter of time before psychology and neurobiology catch up with human nature and our understanding of ourselves. This can only make us all better human beings, which would include the wealthiest among us who only chase money. Perhaps then, they will be willing to give up some of what they have to seek happiness in a different way that is also rich but not because of more money. Rather, it would be one that would benefit them personally and also result in lowering their outrageous salaries and bonuses to the benefit of all.

Further Reading:

Are You a Born Financial Risk-Taker?