A burning for earning: A brief look at ‘wealth addiction’

Back in 1996, I published a paper on behavioural addictions in the Journal of Workplace Learning. One of my introductory paragraphs in that paper noted:

“There is now a growing movement (e.g. Miller, 1980; Orford, 1985) which views a number of behaviours as potentially addictive, including many behaviours which do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviours diverse as gambling (Griffiths, 1995), overeating (Orford, 1985), sex (Carnes, 1983), exercise (Glasser, 1976), computer game playing (Griffiths, 1993a), pair bonding (Peele and Brodsky, 1975), wealth acquisition (Slater, 1980) and even Rubik’s Cube (Alexander, 1981)! Such diversity has led to new all encompassing definitions of what constitutes addictive behaviour”.

The reason I mention this is that I was recently asked to comment on a story about ‘wealth addiction’ and I vaguely remembered that I had mentioned (in passing) Philip Slater’s 1980 book (also entitled Wealth Addiction). Slater’s book was written from a sociological standpoint and was both controversial and provocative. Slater claimed on the book cover that: ““Money is America’s most powerful drug. Here’s how it weakens us and how we can free ourselves”. I also came across an interesting 2012 article by journalist Scott Burns (on ‘wealth addiction revisited’) who noted that:

“One of the hallmarks of wealth addiction is very simple: more possessions but less use. We become so interested in possessing the thing that we lose the experience it provides. This can be as vast as owning homes all around the world, as some of the very rich do, as simple as Bernie Madoff’s shoe collection, or as obsessive as a collection of rare watches. Whatever it is, the wealth addict confuses possession with experience”.

Slater argued that our increasing reliance on money and all of the things that it can buy has the potential to become an obsession that can destroy individual lives. According to short article by Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, wealth addiction has three key characteristics:

  • Tolerance: More and more money is needed to attain a baseline level of satisfaction.
  • Withdrawal: The thought of losing money or not making it fills a person with fear, anxiety and stress.
  • Negative consequences: In their pursuit of money, the person forgoes emotional fulfillment, intimate relationships and peace of mind.

These are actually three of the six criteria that I personally believe comprise genuine addictive behaviour (although I use the word ‘conflict’ rather than ‘negative consequences’; the other three criteria are salience, mood modification and relapse – see my previous blog on behavioural addiction for further details).

The reason why wealth addiction has made a re-appearance over the last month is because of an article published in the New York Times by Sam Polk, a former hedge fund trader that worked on Wall Street (and who since the article has been published has been compared to Jordan Belfort, the person that Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed in the true story film The Wolf of Wall Street).

Polk’s article is an interesting read (whether you think wealth addiction exists or not) and I thought I would pick out some of the text and relate it to my own views about what constitutes addictive behaviour.

  • Extract 1: “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million – and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted”

Here, Polk refers to his work bonuses becoming bigger and bigger and that they were never enough. To me, this sounds like some kind of tolerance effect with more and more money needed to achieve the desired (presumably mood modifying effect). Polk also claims – after the fact – that he had become addicted.

  • Extract 2: “I was also a daily drinker and pot smoker and a regular user of cocaine, Ritalin and ecstasy. I had a propensity for self-destruction that had resulted in my getting suspended from Columbia for burglary, arrested twice and fired from an Internet company for fist fighting”.

Polk openly discusses his previous use of potentially addictive substances and made the comparisons himself between his self-confessed behavioural (wealth) addiction and his previous self-destructive chemical abuse. Some readers may jump to the conclusion that Polk had (or has) an ‘addictive personality’ but this is not something that I personally believe in. To me, Polk is displaying ‘reciprocity’ (swapping one potential addiction with another) rather than being a function of an underlying personality trait. Giving up one addiction often leaves a large void and sometimes the only way to fill it is by engaging in other behaviours that provide similar feelings and sensations.

  • Extract 3: “My counselor didn’t share my elation [at earning more and more money]. She said 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”.

Here, Polk’s therapist appears to hit the nail on the head in relation to what money represented for Polk. I would describe the feeling that Polk gained from both drugs and money was omnipotence (something that I have also written about in relation to my research on gambling).

  • Extract 4: “I was terrified of running out of money and of forgoing future bonuses. More than anything, I was afraid that five or 10 years down the road, I’d feel like an idiot for walking away from my one chance to be really important. What made it harder was that people thought I was crazy for thinking about leaving. In 2010, in a final paroxysm of my withering addiction, I demanded $8 million instead of $3.6 million. My bosses said they’d raise my bonus if I agreed to stay several more years. Instead, I walked away”.

Polk’s language here is very much rooted in what addicts say about their drug or behaviour of choice (“terrified” of being without the thing they love doing). The weighing up of the costs clearly led to a decision for Polk to quit his “withering addiction” and there are obviously signs both here (and the rest of the article if you read it) that leaving behind the wealth left him with some feelings of regret.

  • Extract 7: “The first year was really hard. I went through what I can only describe as withdrawal — waking up at nights panicked about running out of money, scouring the headlines to see which of my old co-workers had gotten promoted. Over time it got easier — I started to realize that I had enough money, and if I needed to make more, I could. But my wealth addiction still hasn’t gone completely away. Sometimes I still buy lottery tickets”.

Here, Polk uses addictive terminology (i.e., withdrawal) to describe giving up the activity that led to him gaining wealth. Again, the fear of running out of money appears psychologically similar to the fear that other more traditional addicts have about running out of their drug of choice. It could also be argued that he has given up one form of gambling (financial trading) with partially doing another (buying lottery tickets).

  • Extract 8: “I was lucky. My experience with drugs and alcohol allowed me to recognize my pursuit of wealth as an addiction. The years of work I did with my counselor helped me heal the parts of myself that felt damaged and inadequate, so that I had enough of a core sense of self to walk away”

Polk uses his experiences in giving up drugs with the help of his therapist as a way of helping him give up wealth acquisition. Knowing you have managed to give up one addiction shows that you have the mental strength to give up another.

Obviously I have never met Polk and I can only go on how he described his experiences during his time on Wall Street, However, the insights shared do seem to suggest that some of the wealth acquisition behaviour had addictive elements and that there was at least some evidence that Polk – at least on some occasions – experienced salience, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and mood modification. Whether he was genuinely addicted to money in the same way as drug addicts are addicted to psychoactive substances is debatable. However, theoretically, I can see how someone might be become addicted to wealth. There are also interesting questions as to whether wealth acquisition may be an underlying motivation for those addicted to work.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Alexander, R. (1981). A cube popular in all circles. New York Times, 21 July, p. C6.

Burns, S. (2012). Beyond envy: Wealth addiction revisited. Dallas News, December 15: Located at: http://www.dallasnews.com/business/columnists/scott-burns/20121215-beyond-envy-wealth-addiction-revisited.ece?nclick_check=1

Carnes, P. (1983). Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. CompCare, New York, NY.

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Are computer games bad for children? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 6, 401-407.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling, Routledge: London.

Orford, J. (1985). Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Wiley: Chichester.

Peele, S. and Brodsky, A. (1975). Love and Addiction. Taplinger: New York, NY.

Polk, S. (2013). For the love of money. New York Times, January 29. Located at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/opinion/sunday/for-the-love-of-money.html?_r=1

Slater, P. (1980). Wealth Addiction. E.P. Dutton: New York, NY.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on February 10, 2014, in Addiction, Alcohol, Case Studies, Compulsion, Culture Bound Syndromes, Drug use, Gambling, Mania, Obsession, Psychology, Sociology, Technology, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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