Who wants to be a billionaire? Thankfully for the planet, most people don’t

Reality check: most people don’t actually want to be billionaires.

A new study is challenging the long-held economic belief that it’s in human nature to have unlimited wants, finding this widely held assumption only applies to a minority of people.

In a survey of nearly 8,000 people from 33 countries across six continents, social psychologists asked people how much money they wanted to accrue in their “absolutely ideal life”.

They found that in 86% of countries most people thought they could achieve the ideal life with US$10 million (AUD$14.3 million) or less, and in some countries the ideal was as little as US$1 million (AUD$1.4 million), across their entire lives.

To put that into context, the current richest person in the world, Elon Musk, has a net worth of more than US$200 billion – that’s enough for 200,000 people to achieve their perceived ideal lives.

The push to continually increase individual wealth and pursue unending economic growth has had dire environmental consequences for the planet, with resource use and pollution increasing alongside wealth.

But these findings, published in Nature Sustainability, challenge the idea that approaches relying on limiting wealth and growth to achieve sustainability are against human ideals and aspirations.

“The findings are a stark reminder that the majority view is not necessarily reflected in policies that allow the accumulation of excessive amounts of wealth by a small number of individuals,” explains co-author Dr Renata Bongiorno, a social psychologist at the University of Exeter and Bath Spa University in the UK.

“If most people are striving for wealth that is limited, policies that support people’s more limited wants, such as a wealth tax to fund sustainability initiatives, might be more popular than is often portrayed.”

Would you want to win a billion in the lottery?

The researchers specifically asked people to imagine their absolutely ideal life, and then consider how much money would want in that life.

Participants made a choice of their preferred prize in a hypothetical lottery, choosing from US$10,000, US$100,000, US$1 million, US$10 million, US$100 million, US$1 billion, US$10 billion or US$100 billion.

It was emphasised that the odds of winning each lottery were identical.

Billionaire, wealth, psychology, poverty, gambling
Percentage of participants and how much money they would like to win in a hypothetical lottery. Credit: Bain & Bongiorno (2022), Nature Communications

The researchers hypothesised that people with insatiable wants – those who cannot conceive of a point where their wants would be fully satiated, so they will always aspire to accumulate more/better goods – would choose the maximum of US$100 billion over all the lesser (limited) amounts.

But while people with unlimited wants were identified in every country surveyed, they were always in the minority. They tended to be younger people and city-dwellers, who placed more value on success, power and independence.

They were also more common in countries with greater acceptance of inequality, and in countries that are more collectivistic – that focus more on group than individual responsibilities and outcomes. 

“The ideology of unlimited wants, when portrayed as human nature, can create social pressure for people to buy more than they actually want,” says lead researcher Dr Paul Bain, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, UK.

“Discovering that most people’s ideal lives are actually quite moderate could make it socially easier for people to behave in ways that are more aligned with what makes them genuinely happy and to support stronger policies to help safeguard the planet.”

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