Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 13, 2020

Is it Wrong to Show off Your Wealth?

by Shreyans Goenka and Manoj Thomas
Woman holding shopping bags

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Is it wrong to live a flashy, ostentatious lifestyle? Should a person be judged for carrying a Louis Vuitton bag and driving a Rolls Royce? Many people would say yes, it is wrong to flaunt your wealth in the face of others. They would say that people should live a simple and humble life and that those who flaunt their designer toys are “bad people.” They might hold Bill Gates as a good example of someone who lives an understated life, despite his vast wealth.

Yet, many other people would say no—it is perfectly acceptable to flaunt your wealth. If people have wealth and status, then they are entitled to celebrate and display them. People who flaunt their designer toys are not “bad people.” For them, Donald Trump might be a good example of someone who has no qualms about displaying his wealth. 

So, why do people differ so widely in their views of ostentatious lifestyles? Why do many people think it is morally wrong to be flashy, while others encourage it? In our research, we found that these differences of opinion can be explained by differences in peoples’ core moral beliefs.

Some people believe that equality and fairness are the most important moral virtues. For them, it is important to make society as equal as possible and to break down class structures. These people see ostentatious behaviors as a manifestation of power, social inequality, and waste. Thus, for them, luxury displays are contrary to their moral values, and they denounce them as wrong.

Other people have different core moral beliefs. These people see hierarchical class structures as a moral virtue. For them, society should not be equal but rather needs to be ordered based on social ranks. These people see ostentatious behaviors as a reinforcer of social rank. So, when people flaunt their wealth, they are signaling their status, which is necessary to preserve social order. Thus, for these people, luxury displays are acceptable because such displays are congruent with their moral values.

These findings help to explain why some cultures and social groups embrace luxury displays while others shun them. For example, Western cultures and rich liberals tend to value equality in society, but Asian cultures and rich conservatives tend to value social order. Indeed, our results show that sales of luxury products tend to be lower in Western countries such as Sweden and Denmark but higher in Asian countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Even within the United States, we found that liberals believe that it is morally wrong for leaders to be ostentatious, whereas conservatives are comfortable with their leaders being flashy.

So, our research shows that people differ in the degree to which they think ostentatious displays of wealth and luxury are morally wrong, and the acceptability of luxury displays reflects differences in people’s core moral beliefs that vary across societies and cultures. So, whether you think it is wrong to show off your wealth depends on your personal moral beliefs. 


For Further Reading

Goenka, S., & Thomas, M. (2020). The malleable morality of conspicuous consumption. Journal of personality and social psychology118(3), 562. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/pspp0000237
 

Shreyans Goenka is a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, and this research was part of his doctoral thesis.

Manoj Thomas is a Nakashimato Professor of Marketing at Cornell University and an expert in consumer psychology.

 

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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