Bill Gates boasts a net worth of $78.9 billion. Microsoft’s co-founder also has a 66,000-square-foot lakeside house in Washington state – complete with a pool that has its own underwater music system.
But the richest man in the world says he has no use for money beyond a certain point.
And he means it.
He’s not alone. Once the super rich have made their billions, they often start trying to save the world.
So what could possibly be driving some of these most powerful people on Earth to make the world a better place for future generations?
A new study, led by University of Michigan’s Leigh Plunkett Tost, suggests that, contrary to popular belief, power doesn’t corrupt – it makes you more generous.
“Previous research focusing on the relationship between contemporaries found that having power tends to cause people to act in more self-interested ways,” co-author and Duke associate professor Kimberly Wade-Benzoni said in a press release. “We add the dimension of time, and we find in contrast that power leads people to act more generously toward future generations.”
The researchers reached those conclusions through a series of experiments.
In the first experiment, 222 participants were randomly assigned high-power and low-power status with the help of a writing task. The former were required to recall a situation in which they had power over others; the latter wrote about an episode in which they lacked power.
Just when the subjects thought their job was over, they were presented with an opportunity to enter a lottery as a reward and donate their winnings to a food charity program in two ways: they could either give away their money to feed the poor immediately or contribute towards long-term structural reform in the food supply system.
The results were startling. Those who held more power over others were more likely to choose future reform over immediate relief to fix the hunger problem.
In a similar experiment, 465 people could choose between keeping a $1,000 bonus for themselves now or a larger amount a year later. Alternatively, they were free to give the money to another person now or a larger amount to someone later. Those who had more power were found to be more likely to part with the bonus for future use.
Of course, these experiments can’t account for lifelong behaviors, but they do suggest that the responsibility to shape the future compels the power holder to think long-term.
But what purpose will the findings serve outside the lab?
“Organizations seeking to ensure that decision makers consider the long-term impact of their decisions should consider highlighting that those with decision-making authority have the power to shape not only their own current performance, but also the performance and outcomes of the generations to come,” Wade-Benzoni said.
In other words, those in positions of power would make better future-friendly decisions if organizations invoked a sense of responsibility towards younger generations.
And if Gates’ example is anything to go by, Wade-Benzoni might have a point.
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