Child Development, November/December 2003, Volume 74, Number 6, Pages 1581 – 1593
The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth
Suniya S. Luthar
Children of affluence are generally presumed to be at low risk. However, recent studies have suggested
problems in several domainsFnotably, substance use, anxiety, and depressionFand 2 sets of potential causes:
pressures to achieve and isolation from parents. Recognizing the limited awareness of these issues, the
objectives in this paper are to collate evidence on the nature of problems among the wealthy and their likely
causes. The first half of the paper is focused on disturbances among affluent children and the second half is
focused on characteristics of their families and neighborhoods. Widespread negative sentiments toward the rich
are then discussed, and the paper concludes with suggestions for future work with families at the upper end of
the socioeconomic spectrum.
In the contemporary child development literature, In this paper the objective is to highlight various
the phrase at-risk children usually implies those from adjustment disturbances that can be prominent
low-income families. For the early part of the 20th among children in wealthy families and to appraise
century, children in poverty were largely ignored by the potential causes of these disturbances. Toward
scientists, and theories of child development were this end, discussions begin with an overview of
based on work with middle-class youth (Graham, existing evidence on problems among suburban
1992). Beginning in the 1950s, however, there was a youth. The second section focuses on aspects of the
growing recognition of the unique risks facing low- contextual surrounds of these affluent children, with
income children and a parallel growth in empirical attention on the functioning of parents and families
studies of their development (Huston, McLoyd, & in upper-class suburbia. Consistent with the devel-
Garcia Coll, 1994). In contrast to this enhanced opmental psychopathology perspective (Cicchetti &
attention to disadvantaged youngsters, there has Cohen, 1995; Sroufe & Rutter, 1984), evidence in both
been almost no research concerning those at the other of these sections is drawn from different disciplines
end of the socioeconomic spectrumFthose living in including sociology, economics, education, and psy-
affluent families. chiatry, as well as from social, clinical, and evolu-
The near total neglect of affluent youngsters tionary psychology. Concluding arguments present
probably reflects two interrelated assumptions some caveats and qualifications to major inferences
among developmental scientists. The first is that that might be drawn from this paper, along with
they are no different from the middle-class majority directions for future work with upper-class children
(who have been amply studied); the second is that across the domains of research, practice, and policy.
given their ‘‘privileged’’ circumstances, the lives of
these youth must be utterly benign (and ostensibly,
therefore, not worthy of scarce research resources).
Neither of these assumptions has been subjected to Evidence of Adjustment Problems Among
careful empirical testing, however, and as is demon- Affluent Youth
strated in discussions that follow, both seem to be One of the first empirical studies to provide a
tenuous at best. glimpse into problems of affluent youth was a
comparative investigation of low-income, urban
10th graders and their upper socioeconomic status
Suniya S. Luthar, Developmental and Clinical Psychology
(SES), suburban counterparts (Luthar & D’Avanzo,
Programs, Columbia University Teachers College. 1999). Central aims were to explore potential
Preparation of the manuscript was supported in part by grants differences, by sociodemographic context, in links
from the National Institutes of Health (RO1-DA10726, RO1- between adolescents’ internalizing problems (de-
DA11498, and R01-DA14385) and from the William T. Grant
pression and anxiety) and their substance use, as
Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Suniya well as ramifications of substance use for their
S. Luthar, Developmental and Clinical Psychology Programs, behavioral competence at school (i.e., peer relation-
Teachers College Box 133, Columbia University, 525 West 120th
Street, New York, NY 10027-6696. Electronic mail may be sent to r 2003 by the Society for Research in Child Development, Inc.
Suniya.Luthar@columbia.edu. All rights reserved. 0009-3920/2003/7406-0004
ships and academic functioning). The sample in- a cross-sectional study involving sixth and seventh
cluded 264 suburban students who were mostly graders in another high-SES community, similar to
from Caucasian, white-collar families, and 224 inner- that studied by Luthar and D’Avanzo (1999). Again,
city youth who were predominantly minority and of the group was predominantly Caucasian; median
low SES. Descriptive analyses in this study revealed annual family income in the town sampled was
that on several indexes of maladjustment, mean more than $125,000.
scores of suburban youth were substantially higher Results of this study showed that suburban sixth
than those of their inner-city counterparts (Luthar & graders reported low levels of depression, anxiety,
D’Avanzo, 1999). Specifically, affluent youth re- and substance use, but seventh grade students
ported significantly higher levels of anxiety across showed some elevations in these domains. Rates of
several domains, and greater depression. They also clinically depressive symptoms, for example, were
reported significantly higher substance use than twice as high among suburban seventh-grade girls
inner-city students, consistently indicating more as compared with rates in normative samples, that
frequent use of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and is, 14% versus 7% (Luthar & Becker, 2002). Similarly,
other illicit drugs. 7% of seventh-grade boys reported drinking until
Appraisal of psychopathology among youth in intoxicated or using marijuana approximately once a
this sample in relation to national norms yielded month, whereas no sixth-grade boys had. Finally,
more startling findings. Among suburban girls in the analyses of data from this middle school cohort
10th grade, one in five reported clinically significant replicated earlier findings on correlates of sub-
levels of depressive symptoms, reflecting rates 3 stance use: There were significant links with various
times as high as those among normative samples. internalizing symptoms among both boys and
Incidence of clinically significant anxiety among girls, and with high levels of peer popularity among
both girls and boys in the suburban high school was the older (seventh-grade) boys (Luthar & Becker,
also higher than normative values (22% and 26% vs. 2002).
17%). Similar patterns were seen for substance use. In exploring causes of suburban students’ dis-
Of suburban girls, 72% reported ever having used tress, Luthar and Becker (2002) examined two
alcohol, for example, as compared with 61% in constructs likely to be salient in affluent milieus:
normative samples, and parallel values for boys’ use achievement pressures and isolation from adults. In
of illicit drugs were 59% versus 38%. upwardly mobile communities, children are often
This study also revealed two sets of disturbing pressed to excel at multiple academic and extra-
patterns concerning correlates of substance use. curricular pursuits to maximize their long-term
Among affluent (but not inner-city) youth, substance academic prospectsFa phenomenon that may well
use was significantly linked with depressive and engender high stress. With regard to isolation,
anxiety symptoms, suggesting efforts at self-medica- sociological research has shown that junior high
tion (Luthar & D’Avanzo, 1999). These findings are students from upper-income families are often alone
of particular concern as substance use of this at home for several hours a week, as parents believe
negative affect subtype shows relatively high con- that this promotes self-sufficiency (Hochschild,
tinuity over time (e.g., Zucker, Fitzgerald, & Moses, 1997). At an emotional level, similarly, isolation
1995). Second, findings suggested that the teenage may often derive from the erosion of family time
peer group might actively endorse substance use together because of the demands of affluent parents’
among suburban boys. High substance use was career obligations and the children’s many after-
linked to their popularity with peers, and this school activities (Luthar & D’Avanzo, 1999, Rosen-
association remained significant despite statistical feld & Wise, 2000; Shafran, 1992).
controls in regression equations for various possible To operationalize major constructs, Luthar and
confounds, including both internalizing and external- Becker (2002) considered two facets each of achieve-
izing problems (Luthar & D’Avanzo, 1999). ment pressures and isolation from parents. Students
In an effort to follow up on these preliminary were asked about their own perfectionistic strivings
signs of disturbance among affluent teens, Luthar as well as perceptions of their parents’ emphasis on
and Becker (2002) conducted a study of suburban children’s personal accomplishments, relative to
middle school students with two major goals: to their character and well-being. Isolation was con-
determine whether the problems previously de- sidered both literally and emotionally, that is, in
tected might generalize to preadolescents as well, terms of the absence of adult supervision in the
and to explore causes of high distress in the context hours after school and the degree of emotional
of material affluence. These issues were examined in closeness to mothers and fathers.
Culture of Affluence 1583
Findings of this study showed patterns largely trowitz & Wingert, 2001, pp. 51 – 52), ‘‘These are
consistent with expectations. Links between hy- supposed to be the years that kids wander around
pothesized predictors and adjustment outcomes and pal around, without being faced with the
were examined using hierarchical regression ana- pressures of the real world.y Instead, the parenting
lyses, with statistical partialing of variance due to experience is being ruined and parents’ effectiveness
shared measurement in self-reports. Results showed is being diminished.’’
significant associations for all predictors with one or Also resonant are views of psychotherapists
more maladjustment domainsFinternalizing symp- working with wealthy families. Describing the
toms, delinquency, and substance useFcorroborat- ‘‘intensely competitive society of the rich,’’ Pittman
ing the likely role of overemphasis on achievement (1985, p. 464) noted that in such milieus, successes
and isolation from parents in the adjustment dis- are expected and failures are both highly visible and
turbances of affluent youth (Luthar & Becker, 2002). apparently inexplicable. Faced with unrelenting
Obviously, no inferences about generalizability pressures to excel (to be average is tantamount to
can be made based on the two previously described having failed), many children develop stress-related
studies; at the same time, there are other findings in symptoms such as insomnia, stomachaches, head-
the literature that resonate with the major themes aches, anxiety, and depression (Gilbert, 1999); some
highlighted. In a study involving more than 800 youngsters come to exaggerate the slightest of health
American teens, for example, Csikszentmihalyi and problems to attain ‘‘acceptable’’ routes out of
Schneider (2000) found a low inverse link between competing with others (Pittman, 1985).
SES and emotional well-being. The most affluent Regarding the issue of parents’ presence in their
youth in this sample reported the least happiness, children’s lives, survey findings (Capizzano, Tout, &
and those in the lowest SES reported the most. Adams, 2002) indicate that 10- to 12-year-olds are
There is also consistent evidence on findings on more likely to be unsupervised by adults after school
substance use. Data from the Monitoring the Future if they are Caucasian and if their families are of
study (Johnston, O’Malley, & Bachman, 1998) higher SES (possibly reflecting wealthy parents’
showed that during preadolescence, family SES beliefs in the relative safety of their neighborhoods).
had low associations with drug use. By the 12th An investigative report following the outbreak of
grade, on the other hand, high-SES youth reported syphilis among teens in a prosperous Georgia town
the highest rate of several drugs, including marijua- involved interviews with a cross-section of the
na, inhalants, and tranquilizers. Regarding correlates town’s youth (PBS Online, 1999). Repeatedly men-
of drug use, Way, Stauber, Nakkula, and London tioned in these interviews were themes of sexual
(1994) found, as did Luthar and D’Avanzo (1999), promiscuity, yearning to fit in and have friends, and
that high-SES youth (but not their inner-city counter- desire for attention and even discipline from parents.
parts) often used substances in efforts to alleviate Comments by developmental scientists, in reaction
emotional distress. Similarly, Cooper (1994) noted to this show, were as follows: ‘‘What is (particularly)
that among adolescent boys in general, more so than disturbingyis the tremendous disconnect that exists
girls, alcohol use is often tied to social conformity between the children of Rockdale County and their
motives such as drinking to fit in with a crowd, and families’’ (Blum, 1999). ‘‘We heard a lot about
Feldman, Rosenthal, Brown, and Canning (1995) emptiness. Houses that were empty and devoid of
showed that popular preadolescent boys were supervision, adult presence, oversight. There was for
among those most prone to partying and heavy far too many of the adolescents a fundamental
drinking later as high school students. emptiness of purpose; a sense that they were not
Various case study and clinical reports lend needed, not connected to adults, to tasks, to any-
support to suggestions on causes of children’s thing meaningful other than the raw and relentless
distress in the context of upper-class suburbia. With pursuit of pleasure’’ (Resnick, 1999). (For a full
regard to the role of achievement pressures, for report on this show and transcripts, see http://
example, family social scientist William Doherty has www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/geor-
cautioned, ‘‘We’re losing our kids to overscheduled gia/etc/synopsis.html.)
hyperactivity. Dance and karate, these are all good On the issue of low psychological closeness, child
thingsybut we want parents to say, ‘Am I over- psychotherapist Shafran (1992) has underscored the
doing the providing of activity opportunities and costs of unpredictability regarding caregivers. Not-
underdoing the providing of family time?’’’ (cited in ing that children in wealthy families are often cared
Belluck, 2000, p. A18). In the words of develop- for by housekeepers or nannies, he argued, ‘‘Fluc-
mental psychologist William Damon (cited in Kan- tuations in the presence and attentiveness of the
primary caregivery whether that person is the (2000) noted that rates of depression are higher in
biological mother or father or is an employed nanny, more economically developed countries than in less
will interfere with the development of a secure sense developed countries. Considering the United States,
of self, with the confidence that one’s needs will be historical trends show that Americans have far more
respected and met and that the world is populated luxuries than they had in the 1950s, with twice as
with people who can be counted upon’’ (Shafran, many cars per person, plus microwave ovens, VCRs,
1992, p. 270). Pittman (1985) similarly indicated that air conditioners, and color TVs. Despite this, they are
parents who have strong drives toward competitive no more satisfied with their lives (Diener, 2000). In
success are also highly invested in the ‘‘star the words of Myers (2000b, p. 61), ‘‘[Americans] are
qualities’’ of their offspring. The children therefore twice as rich and no happier. Meanwhile, the divorce
fail to develop secure attachments based on the rate doubled. Teen suicide tripled.y Depression
knowledge that they are valued for the individuals rates have soared, especially among teens and young
they are and not just for the splendor of their adults. y I call this conjunction of material prosper-
accomplishments. Finally, national survey data (U.S. ity and social recession the American paradox. The
Department of Health and Human Services, 1999) more people strive for extrinsic goals such as money,
showed that among 12- to 17-year-olds, closeness to the more numerous their problems and the less
parents was inversely linked with household in- robust their well being.’’
come. Feelings of high closeness to resident biologi- Wealth – unhappiness associations: Individual-level
cal mothers, for example, were reported by processes. Links between wealth and unhappiness
approximately 75% of adolescents whose family have been explained, by some, in terms of high
incomes were below $15,000, but by only 65% of stress levels and dearth of intrinsic rewards. Deiner
those with family incomes more than $75,000. (2000), for example, has argued that to the extent that
Comparable statistics for closeness to resident the high productivity associated with affluence
biological fathers were 66% and 54%, respectively. involves little leisure time, people become increas-
ingly prone to distress, as economist Schor (1999) has
described how the pressures to work, acquire, and
The Ecological Context: Suburban Parents and
consume tend to deplete personal energies. Csiks-
zentmihalyi (1999, p. 823) has reasoned that ‘‘to the
Although there has been comparatively little extent that most of one’s psychic energy becomes
empirical research conducted with wealthy children, invested in material goals, it is typical for sensitivity
more has been done with their adult counterparts, to other rewards to atrophy. Friendships, art,
and relevant evidence is presented here. Considera- literature, natural beauty, religion and philosophy
tion of these findings is important even for those become less and less interesting.’’
interested primarily in child development, inasmuch Other scholars have specifically implicated indi-
as the processes that affect rich adults will affect viduals’ lack of intimacy in personal relationships.
their children too, both indirectly (through their Pittman (1985), for instance, has argued that people
parents) and directly through exposure to the same who accumulate high wealth often have a special
subculture. Discussions in this section begin, accord- talent and are single-mindedly dedicated to its
ingly, with a brief summary of scientific evidence on development and marketing, resulting in scant time
adjustment problems associated with material for personal relationships. Warner (1991) has noted
wealth. This is followed by more detailed descrip- that the very attributes that make for success in the
tions of conceptual arguments offered to explain world’s marketplace, such as self-protectiveness and
such problems, which collectively implicate pro- opportunism, can inhibit the development of in-
cesses that operate at the level of the individual, of timacy, as these attributes represent a generalized
the community, and of the broader culture of lack of trust of others. In a series of studies, Kasser,
affluence. Ryan, and their colleagues (Kasser & Ryan, 1993,
1996; Ryan et al., 1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 1995)
established poorer mental health and lower well-
Affluence and Well-Being: Research With Adults
being among individuals who disproportionately
In a special issue of the American Psychologist valued extrinsic rewards such as fame and wealth
published at the turn of the 21st century, several over intrinsic rewards such as interpersonal related-
scholars argued that high material wealth can be ness, personal growth, and community service.
associated with low psychological well-being. Re- Perkins (1991) similarly showed that adults with
viewing cross-national epidemiological data, Buss Yuppie valuesFpreferring affluence, professional
Culture of Affluence 1585
success, and prestige over intimacy in marriage and meetings, churches and temples, or community
with friendsFreported being fairly or very unhappy development groups, all groups that are vital for
twice as often as did others. the well-being of communities.
Although inordinately high desires for wealth can Evolutionary psychologists have suggested,
impoverish relationships, causal links can also furthermore, that wealthy communities can, para-
operate in the opposite direction. Kasser, Ryan, doxically, be among those most likely to engender
Zax, and Sameroff (1995) found that teens exposed feelings of friendlessness and isolation in their
to cold, controlling maternal care came to develop inhabitants. As Tooby and Cosmides (1996) argued,
relatively materialistic orientations, whereas better the most reliable evidence of genuine friendship is
nurtured teens came to more strongly value intrinsic that of help offered during times of dire need: People
goals such as personal growth and relationships. tend never to forget the sacrifices of those who
Adults who are unhappy also tend to seek solace in provide help during their darkest hours. Modern
the acquisition of material goods (Diener & Biswas- living conditions, however, present relatively few
Diener, 2002). Experiments by Chang and Arkin threats to physical well-being. Medical science has
(2002) indicated that people tend to turn to materi- reduced several sources of disease, many hostile
alism when they experience uncertainty either in forces of nature have been controlled, and laws and
relation to the self (feelings of self-doubt) or in police forces deter assault and murder. Ironically,
relation to society (e.g., questioning the meaning of therefore, the greater the availability of amenities of
their existence in society). modern living in a community, the fewer are the
Individual-level explanations of affluence – un- occurrences of critical events that indicate to people
happiness links have also implicated discontent which of their friends are truly engaged in their
following habituation to new wealth, in a process welfare and which are only fair-weather compan-
similar to any unfolding addiction. Following Brick- ions. This lack of critical assessment events, in turn,
man and Campbell’s (1971) suggestion that people engenders lingering mistrustfulness despite the
tend to labor on a ‘‘hedonic treadmill,’’ psychologists presence of apparently warm interactions (Tooby &
have argued that when individuals strive for a Cosmides, 1996).
certain level of affluence and reach it, they become These contentions are relevant to processes among
quickly habituated and then start hankering for the the affluent inasmuch as material wealth reduces the
next level up, becoming frustrated when this is not need to depend solely on friends. Affluent individ-
achieved (Meyers, 2000b; Schor, 1999). Csikszentmi- uals are amply able to purchase various services
halyi (1999) has noted that wealth, like many good such as psychotherapy for depression, medical care
things, is beneficial in small quantities, but it for physical illness, and professional caregivers for
becomes increasingly desired and ultimately be- children, and in not having to rely on friends for
comes harmful in large doses. Resonant is Pittman’s such assistance, they rarely obtain direct ‘‘proof’’ of
(1985, p. 470) characterization: ‘‘Wealth is addictive. others’ authentic concern. In essence, therefore, the
It enticingly offers happiness, but it cannot provide rich are the least likely to experience the security of
satisfaction, so those who attain some of it keep deep social connectedness that is routinely enjoyed
thinking more of it will provide satisfaction.y by people in communities where mutual depen-
[Those] who have become addicted to ity can dence is often unavoidable (Myers, 2000a).
experience severe withdrawal when they can’t get it. Physical characteristics of wealthy suburban com-
Withdrawal from wealth, and the hope of wealth, munities may also contribute to feelings of isolation.
can be terrifying.’’ Houses in these communities are often set far apart
Community-level forces. Competitive structures of with privacy of all ensured by long driveways, high
market economies can promote distress by inhibiting hedges, and sprawling lawns (Weitzman, 2000;
the formation of supportive relationship networks. Wilson-Doenges, 2000). Neighbors are unlikely to
Political scientist Putnam (1993, 2000) has argued casually bump into each other as they come and go
that when there is high use of market-based services, in their communities, and children are unlikely to
there is, correspondingly, limited engagement of play on street corners. Paradoxically, once again, it is
individuals outside the marketplace, low levels of possible that the wealthiest neighborhoods are
cooperation for shared goals, and growing use of the among the most vulnerable to low levels of cohe-
market to acquire child care and other services siveness and efficacy (Sampson, Raudenbush, &
historically provided by family and neighbors. Earls, 1997). When encountering an errant, disrup-
Collectively, such trends erode social capital, as tive child of the millionaire acquaintance next door,
exemplified by diminished attendance at PTA neighbors tend to be reluctant to intervene not only
because of respect for others’ privacy but also, more drove her luxury car into my parking area, walked
pragmatically, because of fears of litigation (e.g., gracefully into my office, sat down, and announced,
Warner, 1991). ‘My life is perfect. I have everything I could ask for,’
The culture of affluence. At the wider systemic and then, bursting into tears, ‘Why am I so
level, the individualism of cultures of affluence can unhappy? This makes no sense at allFI must get
exacerbate people’s unhappiness because of the over this!’’’ (R. Tower, personal communication,
relatively transient nature of social groups. Cross- April 7, 2002). Our own work with suburban teens
cultural researcher Triandis (1994) noted that in has revealed similar themes. Over the years, several
complex, individualistic settings, people can belong troubled youth have reported that disclosure of their
to many groups without being strongly committed depression has elicited negative reactions ranging
to any. They can choose their churches or clubs from from incredulity (that they could have anything to
among many choices, for example, and they tend to be unhappy about) to dismissal or even scorn of
remain with these or leave them as suits their needs. what are seen as self-centered and entirely unwar-
In simpler, collectivist societies, by contrast, choices ranted complaints. The cultural trivialization of their
are fewer and groups (such as village or tribe) are depressionFvia the ubiquitous message that the
often assigned. As allegiances shift less often, there rich have no right to feel emotionally deprived-
are concomitantly more opportunities for the devel- Fonly exacerbates existing feelings of isolation and
opment of strong group-based relationship networks. alienation.
Arguments offered by Schwartz (2000) are also Gender-specific stressors. Aside from intrapersonal,
based on cultural emphases on individualism, community-based, and cultural factors that contri-
except in this case the mechanisms involve high bute to wealth – unhappiness links, there are also
choice and control on the one hand, and vulner- some challenges relatively specific to women in
ability to depression on the other. The reasoning in upper-class communities and other challenges more
this case is as follows. Extraordinary material wealth salient for men. To consider women first: Many
usually implies high levels of autonomy and choice, affluent mothers do not work outside the home.
so that many affluent people can live exactly the Despite excellent qualifications and, frequently,
kind of lives they want. They are able to purchase an stellar early career trajectories, several of these
endless variety of goods and services, and given women leave the work force once they have
high professional skills, they are able to move from children. As a result, they are deprived of various
one job to another with relative ease. Whereas all work-related gratifications, including the self-effi-
these options might be assumed to engender cacy and positive identity that derive from jobs well
happiness, they often lead to depression instead. done (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) and the vital net-
Why? Because increases in experienced control are works of supportive relationships and sense of
accompanied by increases in expectations about community that can be accessed in the workplace
control. ‘‘The more we are allowed to be the masters (Myers & Diener, 1995). As sociologist Hochschild
of our fates in one domain of life after another, the (1997) has demonstrated, American parents in
more we expect to be.y In short, life is supposed to generalFfrom diverse backgrounds and socioeco-
be perfect’’ (Schwartz, 2000, p. 85). Continuing this nomic strataFtend to prefer being in the office to
argument, Schwartz noted that when perfection is staying at home to care for young children, perceiv-
not achieved, the ethos of individualism biases ing the former as generally more gratifying and the
people toward attributing failures to personal rather latter as comparatively more stressful.
than to external causes. As Seligman’s (1975) seminal Mothers who do remain employed, conversely,
works established, this sort of causal attribution is often experience the dual pressures of having to
just the type that fosters depression. excel not only at fast-paced, demanding jobs such as
Finally, cultures of materialism carry the strong investment banking or corporate law but equally in
message that affluence brings happinessFwith the their roles as mothers (e.g., Berger, 2000). The
implicit corollary, of course, that wealthy people professional culture demands that they put as much
who are unhappy must be ungrateful, self-indul- time and effort into their jobs as do their male
gent, or both. Psychotherapists report, in fact, that colleagues (although women are particularly uneasy
affluent individuals commonly struggle with confu- about outperforming others in traditionally male
sion and guilt about their distress (e.g., Wolfe & domains, such as income or occupational prestige,
Fodor, 1996), as captured in the following report: ‘‘I see Exline & Lobel, 1999). At the same time, many of
cannot begin to count the number of times that an these women set very high standards for themselves
expensively dressed, immaculately groomed woman as parents. Thus, the disdainful moniker ‘‘soccer
Culture of Affluence 1587
mom’’ often refers to women who find themselves, there is again considerable potential for the festering
frequently, ‘‘on their mobile phones taking care of of self-doubt and insecurity among men working in
business while they’re cheering their kids on the such settings.
football field, [and]y working late at the office, Furthermore, failures can be particularly painful
correcting their kids’ homework by e-mail and fax’’ for those most accustomed to power and success. In
(Kantrowitz & Wingert, 2001, p. 51). their studies of vervet monkeys, Raleigh, McGuire,
The pressures faced by upper-class women, along Brammer, Pollack, and Yuwiler (1991) found that the
with a strong subcultural emphasis on privacy, lead highest ranking (alpha) males had levels of the
many of them to self-medicate through alcohol or neurotransmitter serotonin that were twice as high
prescription drugs (Wolfe & Fodor, 1996). Describing as those of other males in the group. When these
this phenomenon, Dr. David Brizer, Chair of Nor- alpha males lost their position, however, their
walk Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry, has said, serotonin levels fell and their behaviors resembled
‘‘The drug problem is endemic to wealthy suburban those of depressed humans: They huddled, rocked,
areas, due in part to social isolation.y Women who and refused food. These behaviors were then
live in parts of the country such as ours may have reduced with the administrations of drugs that
gone from a very culturally and intellectually rich raise serotonin levels, such as Prozac. As Buss
atmosphere of being in college to being stuck at (2000, p. 20) concluded, ‘‘Perhaps the most difficult
homeFand it can be maddening, not to mention the challenge posed by our evolved psychological
very real challenge of raising children’’ (quoted in mechanisms is managing competition and hierarchy
Duff, 2002, p. 102). negotiation, given that selection has fashioned
Also believed to be highly prevalent are eating powerful mechanisms that drive rivalry and status
disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and crash striving.’’
dieting, all of which derive from the strong emphasis A final problem stemming from men’s career
on physical appearance in the upper classes (Wolfe patterns pertains to their fluctuating levels of
& Fodor, 1996). Although this concern with appear- integration with family life. Based on her ethno-
ance may be disparaged by some as a shallow graphic research with families of fishermen, Mederer
preoccupation unique to the rich, evolutionary (1999) has provided a vivid view into stresses
psychology experiments suggest otherwise. As experienced as a result of the fathers’ frequent trips
Gutierres, Kenrick, and Partch (1999) and others away. Frequently, spouses and children find it
have argued (e.g., Buss, 1989), the ability to attract difficult to readjust their role boundaries and every-
mates is linked with characteristics strongly valued day routines to accommodate to the men’s re-entry
in the opposite sex, and these among women are after prolonged absences. Mederer correctly noted
signs of fertility (i.e., healthy and youthful physical that such struggles are not unique to fisherman’s
attractiveness). Thus, women in general can come to families but generalize to any situation where a
doubt their own appeal as mates when surrounded parent is frequently away for work (e.g., in military
by others who are highly physically attractive. or corporate careers).
Consistent with this reasoning, results of experi-
ments established that female participants, when
Judgments About Choices and Control
shown pictures of other physically attractive wo-
men, subsequently reported lower feelings of person- Undoubtedly, the preceding arguments will
al adequacy and decreased ratings of their own evoke, in some, the equivalent of the sardonic
attractiveness as marriage partners (Gutierres et al., colloquialism, ‘‘I should only have their problems!’’
1999; see also Brown, Novick, Lord, & Richards, Many have scant sympathy for the rich, believing
1992; Richins, 1991). that they can and should walk away from their
Juxtaposed with women’s adverse reactions to frenetic lifestyles. High-income professionals are
pictures of physically attractive others, Gutierres commonly seen as excessively ambitious, volition-
et al.’s (1999) research showed, in parallel, that ally choosing their fast-paced careers given lopsided
men’s reports of their desirability as marriage priorities concerning the importance of money or
partners suffered when they were exposed to fame versus the welfare of their families.
socially dominant men (see also Kenrick & Keefe, Although there may be some validity to such
1992; Kenrick, Neuberg, Zierk, & Krones, 1994; views, there are at least three factors that bear
Sadalla, Kendrick, and Vershure, 1987). Given that consideration before making sweeping judgments in
dominant and influential men are likely to be this regard. One is that it is a universal human
ubiquitous in the most high-paying professions, phenomenon to want moreFmore than one cur-
rently has, and more than what others in one’s life Negative Judgments: The Rich and the Poor
space have. As cryptically noted by Myers (2000b, p.
60), ‘‘Thanks to our capacity to adapt to ever greater Interestingly, some negative views of the very rich
fame and fortune, yesterday’s luxuries can soon are similar to those applied to their counterparts at
become today’s necessities and tomorrow’s relics.’’ the other extreme of the economic continuum. In her
A cardinal premise of Festinger’s (1954) social literature review, Lott (2002) noted that the poor are
comparison theory, similarly, is that people evaluate often characterized as being dishonest, indolent,
themselves not so much by objective standards as by promiscuous, uninterested in education, and per-
comparison with people around them (see also sonally responsible for their plight. There is a
Exline & Lobel, 1999; Tesser, Millar, & Moore, parallel set of adjectives commonly applied to the
2000). Illustrating this, Myers (2000a) pointed out rich: unethical, entitled, arrogant, superficial, and
that most people are happier making $50,000 when narcissistic, and entirely responsible for their own
those around them make 40,000 than they are unhappiness (Pittman, 1985; Pollak & Schaffer, 1985;
making $60,000 when those around them make Shafran, 1992; Warner, 1991; Weitzman, 2000).
$70,000. The wealthy may actually evoke more wide-
The second consideration is that many parents in spread dislike than the poor given their status as
upper-class communities can be reluctant to give up the keepers of the power rather than those excluded
their high-paying careers not out of shallow greed or from it (much as the schoolyard bully is usually
insatiable consumerism but because it could imply more disliked than is the victim). Social psycholo-
reductions in opportunities for their children (cf. gists have suggested, in fact, that misfortunes of the
Wolfe & Fodor, 1996). In this regard, again, rich wealthy can evoke a malicious pleasure in others, for
parents are not unique: All parents want to do the people in general feel some satisfaction in the
best they can for their young. Whereas fencing downfall of those far more successful than they
lessons or designer clothes might be viewed as themselves are (a phenomenon labeled schadenfreude;
frivolous indulgences, the desire for high-quality see Brigham, Kelso, Jackson, & Smith, 1997; Feather
educational experiences is less easily dismissed. & Sherman, 2002; Smith, 2000; Smith et al., 1996).
There could, therefore, be at least two interpretations It should be noted, too, that affluent, powerful
of economist Linder’s (1970) assertion that as income people are likely to be well aware of others’
and therefore the value of one’s time increases, it resentment of them and to be troubled by this. Based
becomes less and less rational to spend it on things on their extensive literature review, Exline and Lobel
other than making money. To be sure, this could (1999) concluded that outperforming others can be
reflect parents’ selfish acquisitiveness. Equally, how- privately satisfying, by engendering, for example,
ever, it couldFgiven the materialistic culture of feelings of pride and efficacy. At the same time, it can
contemporary AmericaFreflect their guilt at volun- be a source of much stressFand most so among
tarily choosing not to work hard at acquiring all they those highly successfulFbecause of feelings of guilt
possibly could, for the next generation. or embarrassment; empathic sadness for those out-
Finally, parents’ resolute commitment to fast- performed; worries about conflicted relationships
paced careers does not necessarily stem from with them; and fears of provoking their envy,
egotistical, narcissistic self-absorption but may often exclusion, or retaliation. Exline and Lobel noted,
derive from deep-seated personal unhappiness. As furthermore, that wealth and possessions are among
previously noted, research has shown that many the domains in which people tend to experience high
people become highly invested in acquiring wealth stress about having outperformed others, an asser-
and prestige in reaction to, or as compensation for, tion that implies, in turn, that wealthy folk are
lack of emotional gratifications (Kasser et al., 1995). probably well aware that societal attitudes toward
Consistent with this view is Miller’s (1995) vivid their difficulties will be unsympathetic at best. To
description of The Drama of the Gifted Child, where summarize, then, families in poverty are obviously
the lack of early parental acceptance of the whole greatly handicapped from the standpoint of basic
childFwith all of his or her imperfectionsFleads necessities such as food, shelter, and education, but
some highly intelligent children to become exces- in terms of being disliked or distanced by society in
sively invested in their achievements as a source of general, the affluent may be at least as disadvantaged
their self-worth. As they move through life, the if not more so.
driving sentiment increasingly becomes, ‘‘I am what Parallels in negative attitudes toward the poor
I achieve,’’ with the chilling corollary, of course, and the rich are also apparent in service providers’
‘‘Without my achievements, I will become a failure.’’ countertransferential reactions. Clinicians working
Culture of Affluence 1589
with poor heroin-abusing abusing mothers are often wealth and positive adolescent outcomes (i.e., sub-
cautioned about reactions such as judgments of their jective happiness and closeness to parents) has
moral depravity or neglect of children (e.g., Luthar, derived from cross-national samples (Csikszentmi-
D’Avanzo, & Hites, 2003; Luthar & Suchman, 2000). halyi & Schneider, 2000; U.S. Department of Health
In parallel, therapists working with the very rich are and Human Services, 1999). On the other hand, the
warned of reactions ranging from dismissiveness at studies showing elevations in negative outcomesF
the one end to envy and active contempt at the other. greater psychopathology as compared with norma-
Weitzman (2000), for example, reported that many tive samplesFwere conducted in Northeastern
service providers trivialize complaints of spousal suburbs (e.g., Luthar & Becker, 2002; Luthar &
abuse from affluent women, assuming that they D’Avanzo, 1999). It is plausible that regions of the
have all the resources needed to leave their abusive country vary in the degree to which affluence
partners; consequently, assistance is often denied implies highly stressful, competitive lifestyles and,
and referrals not made. Several authors have written thus, increased vulnerability to symptoms. In a
of envy among psychotherapists (Pollak & Schaffer, similar vein, it is not clear whether the problems sug-
1985; Shafran, 1992; Warner, 1991), which stems from gested represent a largely suburban phenomenon or
their typically lower access to material possessions might generalize to high-SES children in large cities.
and life opportunities than their very wealthy The third issue constitutes a critical caveat to the
clients. As envy is an emotion that is particularly substantive take-home messages that might be
socially disapproved (Exline & Lobel, 1999), further- gleaned from this paper: that it is not the surfeit of
more, many therapists (and no doubt, many in riches in itself but rather an overemphasis on status
society more generally) then defend it by converting and wealth that is likely to compromise well-being.
it into other less repugnant emotions. These usually All things considered, it is better to be rich than to be
include pejorative or contemptuous attitudes such as poor; cross-national data clearly show that money
scorn about their self-indulgent, querulous com- enhances subjective well-being when it implies the
plaining or covert pleasure in seeing the rich get difference between being able versus unable to meet
‘‘knocked down to size’’ (Pollak & Schaffer, 1985, p. basic life needs (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002). It is
351; see also Shafran, 1992). only when individuals become disproportionately
invested in extrinsic rewards, concomitantly neglect-
ing intrinsic rewards such as closeness in relation-
Counterarguments, Caveats, and Future Directions
ships, that there are likely to be ill effects on their
While discussions presented thus far highlight the mental health outcomes (Kasser, 2002; Tooby &
psychological costs of affluence, several counter- Cosmides, 1996; Triandis, 1994).
arguments warrant consideration in weighing the In the years ahead, it is vital that developmental
overall magnitude of the problems suggested. The scientists critically examine the conditions under
first of these concerns the authenticity of disturbance which parents’ affluence spells high risk for chil-
reported by affluent youth. Although a few samples dren. To be sure, epidemiological evidence will be
of high-SES teenagers have shown elevated levels of required to ascertain the degree to which child
depression, anxiety, and substance use, it is possible psychopathology rates are truly elevated among the
that these problems reflect normative complaints in wealthy. Even as we await such evidence, however,
the culture of upper-class suburbia rather than it would be wise to recognize that (a) no child is
serious psychopathology. In other words, for some immune to stressors from the environment, (b)
if not many youth, reports of adolescent angst might extreme environments of all kinds are likely to have
reflect conformity to what is expected (or even their own sets of problems, and (c) there is almost no
approved of) in the subculture of affluence (Luthar developmental research on the ecological context of
& Becker, 2002). In the years ahead, longitudinal affluence. In the decade since Graham’s (1992)
research will be critical in illuminating this issue, admonishment that developmental research until
identifying the degree to which high self-reported then had involved mostly middle-class children,
distress among suburban teens does in fact presage there has been, appropriately, growing attention to
subsequent deterioration in critical domains, by youth in poverty. It is critical that we now begin to
affecting their school grades, for example, or leading consider the other extreme that has remained
to diagnosable mental illness. ignored thus far, making a concerted effort to
A second issue concerns the geographic general- illuminate the challenges particularly salient for
izability of problems among affluent youth. Extant children of affluence, along with the severity and
evidence of modest inverse links between family continuity of problems they might develop.
As researchers begin to clarify these issues, it developmental science) may have been only faintly
would also be prudent for applied professionalsF aware of in prior years.
educators, pediatricians, and other cliniciansFto
remain vigilant to the mental health vulnerabilities
of high-SES youth. Research on child psychopathol-
ogy has shown that, in general, most parents tend to
be aware when their children are emotionally Although children of the very affluent are typically
troubled but, at the same time, tend not to seek help seen as low risk, there are some suggestions that
for these problems (Puura et al., 1998). Affluent they manifest more disturbance than others, partic-
parents are less likely than most to seek professional ularly in relation to substance use, anxiety, and
help, partly to protect the veneer of perfection they depression. Exploration of causes suggests two
feel compelled to maintain (Wolfe & Fodor, 1996) factors as being implicated: excessive pressures to
and partly for fear that this may constitute a achieve and isolation from parents (both literal and
significant impediment for the child’s academic emotional).
and professional future (Pollak & Schaffer, 1985). Extant studies with adults have also suggested
By the same token, if school personnel are concerned psychological costs of material wealth. At the
about children’s adjustment, they are cautious in individual level, inordinate emphasis on material
exhorting professional care for fear of parental success can limit attainment of other rewards critical
displeasure (or even litigation). Paradoxically, there- for well-being, such as close relationships. At the
fore, children of the wealthy can be deprived of the community level, material affluence can inhibit the
school-based mental health services that are rou- formation of supportive networks, as services tend
tinely accessed by those from more modest back- to be bought and not shared. At the systemic level,
grounds (Pollak & Schaffer, 1985). the subculture of affluence emphasizes personal
In considering the need for any external interven- autonomy and control, with the associated dangers
tions, some might protest that the scant policy of blaming oneself when control is not achieved.
resources available for children’s mental health Some adults’ stressors are gender specific. Many
should be reserved only for the truly needyFthose upper-class mothers give up professional careers
in povertyFbut this position would be questionable and are thus deprived of work-related gratifications;
from an ethical and pragmatic perspective. Classism those who remain employed can face exacting
is unconscionable whomever the target; a child who demands both in their jobs and at home. Fathers,
is suicidal or dependant on drugs deserves help in turn, can contend with the substantial ramifica-
regardless of how much money his or her parents tions (or fears) of losing positions of powerFthe
earn. From a practical standpoint, furthermore, it is higher the status, the greater the fallFand with
useful to consider that the external resources needed frequent absences from home due to professional
to foster children’s mental health will be exponen- obligations.
tially lower for the rich than the poor. In most low- Many might believe that rich people should
income communities, the creation of quality mental simply walk away from their pressured lifestyles,
health services would necessitate considerable fi- but to relinquish a lucrative career can be hard for
nancial support. In communities where such ser- anyone. Although not all possess wealth, the desire
vices are already in place, an expedient first step, as for more of it is universal. Moreover, many rich
Doherty (2000) has argued, would simply be to raise parents may stay with their high-pressure jobs not
adults’ awareness of the psychological costs of out of personal greed but to provide their children
overscheduled, competitive lifestyles. Such aware- with the best they can (in many cases, a stellar
ness promotion can be effectively accomplished education).
through books comprehensible to the lay public Classism is directed to some degree at the rich, as
(for excellent examples, see Kasser, 2002; Myers, it unambiguously has been directed at the poor.
2000a; Rosenfeld & Wise, 2000), interviews with Without question, for those concerned about the next
journalists (e.g., Belluck, 2000; Julien, 2002; Smith, meal, the misery borne of ennui can seem ludicrous.
2002; Wen, 2002), and workshops with parent, On the other hand, the desire to be liked and
school, and community groups (see Kantrowitz, accepted by others is universal, and the rich are not
2000, p. 49). Although obviously not panaceas for only often the focus of envy and dislikeFfrom
extant ills, such efforts could begin to sensitize society in general and sometimes from cliniciansF
caregivers to potentially insidious stressors in the but are also aware that their misfortunes tend to
context of affluence, stressors that they (like we, in evoke malicious pleasure in others.
Culture of Affluence 1591
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