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Is Wealth an Addiction?

Worrying news from planet Pluto. It may not be new but it’s the first time we are getting an insight into it: a powerful addiction working on the super-mega-rich. The name for this addiction behaviour is “wealth accumulation rivalry”.

“There is no point at which those who accumulate money become satisfied” says George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian. He cites the case of Prince Alwaleed, the Arab world’s richest man. With a net worth, as calculated by Forbes Magazine, at around $20 billion, you might expect this man has a certain contentment, derived from knowing that his financial affairs are nicely in order, thus freeing him up for a spot of quality time with the grandchildren.

Not so. It seems that he is so obsessed with keeping his position as the Richest Man in the Arab World that he spends his time on what we can recognise as obsessive and addictive behaviour connected with the accumulation of even more wealth. One of his main activities is to constantly check the lists of the world’s richest men to make sure his ranking hasn’t fallen. He recently declared himself “insulted” by Forbes magazine who ranked him at “only” 26 in their list of the world’s top billionaires.

For Prince Alwaleed it seems that wealth is just a way of measuring his position vis-a-vis other super rich people. The billionaire Howard Hunt once saidmoney is just a way of keeping score” . But a competition like this is never ending and never satisfactory. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus put it: Nothing is enough to the person for whom enough is too little.”

This manic quest for wealth displays some of the criteria for addiction diagnosis: obsession with the behaviour itself (wealth accumulation); loss of other interests; increased tolerance (ever larger amounts are needed); and the inability to control the behaviour. One can also presume there is denial about the seriousness of the behaviour itself. In addition, wealth accumulators often display many of the characteristics of substance abusers: selfishness, impatience, grandiosity, relationship difficulties and the “I want it now” syndrome. Prince Alwaleed may not display all of these characteristics but he apparently has his own jumbo jet, zoo and $700 million worth of jewels. Perhaps he gets a “high” from these excesses, as a gambler does.

Another big news story about billionaires was the “Giving Pledge” headed by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, in which billionaires are encouraged to give away much of their wealth to charity. But this too can be seen as another facet of behavioural addiction: wealth accumulation rivalry in reverse. Does a billionaire get a thrill from giving away huge piles of cash?  Is it the same “high” that a gambler gets when losing his chips at the roulette table? Many gamblers will tell you that they don’t care if they win or lose — as long as they keep playing, which keeps that “high” going. Could it be the same with Plutocrats?

Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | May 22, 2013