illustration of a man in a suit standing on a diving board

Personality traits that predict wealth


The ability to sit comfortably with the unknown might well be the deciding factor when it comes to success.
Illustration by AvInash Weerasekera

Fifty years ago, Stanford University psychology professor Walter Mischel had a hunch. Would a child who waited longer for a bigger prize be ultimately more successful in life than a child who wanted a smaller one right now?

Thus was born the Stanford Marshmallow experiment of 1972: each child was given the choice between one immediate marshmallow, or two if he or she waited. The results seemed to suggest short-term gratification was a clear long-term spoiler, while waiting for the bigger prize may have been a predictor of traits such as higher educational achievement, higher sense of self-worth and a better ability to cope with stress.

Was the marshmallow experiment an early indicator of a person’s future success? Not everybody believes so. A 2018 joint study conducted by psychologists at New York University and UC Irvine suggested it might be based on environmental factors – richer kids, it argued, are in a more powerful position than their poorer counterparts to control their immediate desires. It stipulated that background – not internal willpower – was behind the kid’s reactions.

Jane Monica-Jones, who counts herself as Australia’s only financial therapist, agrees with the delayed gratification hypothesis as a precursor to certain positive future outcomes. But does it apply to the top of the tops – the successful entrepreneurs? Monica-Jones says it does – but these people also possess a degree of mental resilience we mere mortals lack in spades. She rates the entrepreneurs’ ability “to contain uncertainty on numerous fronts” as among the most important of their behavioural traits. 

“They have a capacity to live out on this edge, and are able to manage their own mental health, mindset and self-encouragement all in the midst of risk taking,” Monica-Jones says.  

As if this was not enough, how many more psychological ingredients are needed to create the perfect money-making human? Jason Andriessen, a partner in social research agency MYMAVINS says “self-fulfilling confidence” also works wonders. He cites a study which enlisted a large number of young students to complete an exam that would purportedly reveal the ‘special’ kids with unseen ability but plenty of potential. 

“Teachers, parents and children were informed of the results and performances were tracked over time,” he explains. “Sure enough the kids found to be ‘special’ did indeed outperform their classmates over an extended period.” 

There was only one catch – the test was a fake and the special kids were randomly assigned. “The expectations and attention then given to these special kids was in fact the driver,” he says. “They were treated as being special and then became more likely to be special.”

“There is evidence that having too much money raises stress levels … the more you have the more you want … it’s an addiction.”

What does this mean in behavioural terms? Andriessen says:

“Confidence begets positive actions which provides positive feedback in a virtuous reinforcement cycle. Micro-gains through countless decisions, actions and disciplined commitments add up and build behavioural reinforcement.”

Attitudes to money mean something

Behavioural reinforcement, it seems, is a big factor in all we do – and it’s not always positive. The widespread financial distress of the 1930s so deeply affected our grandparents and great-grandparents that the period has since become a memory no-go zone. The poverty was the shame, and that shame ‘best forgotten’. 

Fear of loss became so embedded, says Monica-Jones, that it conditioned itself into the family psyche. How does this manifest itself? We hear it all the time: ‘I/we never talk about money.’

Even those who flourished in the 1930s remained button-lipped about the period. It was seen as crass and impolite to talk of money when so many suffered. Did all this guilt and reticence end there, when economies returned to normal? It seems not. The depression mindset set in for the long haul, baking itself into the next generation of minds.

“There are others who are ‘debilitatingly wealthy’. They simply do not have the mental equipment to deal with large sums of money.”

In her 2019 book, The Billionare Buddha, Monica-Jones sought to explain people’s varying predilections towards money and argues that, generational trauma runs deep. The scars occur when “our real self has been shaped, moulded and twisted into something that matches someone else’s desires (i.e. our parents and grandparents) over what feels right to ourselves,” she says.

It’s a tricky area and there is no such thing as a cure-all. Those who refuse to talk about money display similar traits to those who once feared confessing their aberrant sexuality. The latter is now increasingly in the open and socially acceptable, but self-wealth talk remains largely taboo. It remains one of the few remaining psycho-social frontiers.

The psychoses over money are many and varied. Among her clients, Monica-Jones has over-spenders and under-earners, people challenged with a financial settlement during a divorce, people retired and people hamstrung by their non-earning status.

And then there are others who are “debilitatingly wealthy”. They simply do not have the mental equipment to deal with large sums of money. They may have inherited it. Logic says that they would be ‘laughing all the way to the bank’, but it is not always so. Overwhelmed by their new-found fortune, they may fall into three psychological modes – fight, flight or freeze, she says. 

“It’s their histories. They may be saying ‘I don’t deserve it. I’m rejecting it. I didn’t make it, I don’t want it and I want nothing to do with it’,” Monica-Jones says. “Money becomes such a conceptual maze and a tangible web that is loaded with our projections, our belief, hopes and fears,” she writes. “Having the perceived healthy amount of money or not attaining it has a dramatic stamp on our psychological well-being; and therefore, naturally our health.”

 Can it make you happy?

There have long been attempts to find the perfect starting point, the right amount of money to reach nirvana. At what dollar value do we have enough to satisfy needs, remain healthy and have expectations? A 2018 article in the international journal Nature Human Behaviour posed the following question: Does happiness rise indefinitely with income, or is there a point at which higher incomes no longer lead to greater well-being? 

The World Gallup Poll interviewed 1.7m individuals worldwide from 164 countries, approximating a global representation of people aged 15 years or over. “Globally, we find that satiation occurs at US$95,000 for life evaluation and US$60,000-US$75,000 for emotional well being.” This is academic speak for satiated (happy) at US$95,000, but ‘doing okay’ at the lower level.

“The most interesting point in the poll seemed to come after satiation-happiness. The poll found “the presence of turning points at which income levels after satiation saw consistent decrements in happiness”.

Is this the proof that plenty of money doesn’t always bring plenty of happiness? The journal itself could only speculate. It suggested that it wasn’t the higher incomes that drove the reduction in happiness but the costs and responsibilities associated with them. High incomes imply high demands (time, workload, responsibility etc.).

One of the reasons they argued for the decline of happiness at higher wealth points was “an increase in materialistic values”.

Problems at the top

Maybe its these “materialistic values” that are the problem. There is other evidence that having too much money raises stress levels. University of Queensland professor of psychology Jolanda Jetten was part-author of a global study polling 175,000 extremely wealthy individuals. The results, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in March 2020, found a constant: the more you have, the more you want. If you have wealth and status, you want more – and more. It’s an addiction.  

Illustration by AvInash Weerasekera

 “We always make upwards comparisons. The wealthier you are, the more you want more status and more money,” Jetten says. 

The wealthy, as expected, were far more incentivised than poorer people to accrue wealth. No doubt, the study had a political edge to it. It sought to understand what psychological propulsions were driving social inequality – the growing gap between rich and poor. 

 “What we did find more generally was what we call the fear of falling. If you have a lot of money, you have a lot to lose. So that can create a particular anxiety.” This explains why wealthy people become even more obsessed with wealth when the chips are down, says Jetten. “In times of economic crisis and turmoil. The wealthy are not only at risk of losing their money, power and status, but also their identity and sense of self,” she says.

Problems in the middle

 Fear of falling may be the problem for the ultra-wealthy, but there are other, similar anxieties among the not-so wealthy. Keeping up with the Joneses has been a cliché touted for years, but is it statistically supported? Andriessen formed his firm MYMAVINS specifically to research the social psychology of money. The Joneses mentality is alive and well and living in Australia, he says.

A survey his firm did for Fidelity Australia in September 2021 among retirees revealed that at certain income points, jealousy of the other starts to manifest itself.

“Have you ever heard of the brother-in-law rule?,” Andriessen laughs. “It was postulated by American satirist HL Mencken – he said wealth was all about making one hundred dollars a year more than your wife’s sister’s husband.” Lack of money, he says, is misery, and for that reason those on low incomes find every extra dollar creating psychological relief. “They drink less, they sleep better and tend to have better relationships. But there is a point where you reach enough.”

That point seems to be where the ‘Joneses’ syndrome kicks in. Can it be statistically charted? His research on retirees, conducted for Fidelity Australia points to a sense of dissatisfaction among the ‘middle wealthy’. 

The survey found that happiness among retirees was just on $100,000 a year, but, between $100,000 and $150,000, people became more miserable. After that point (over $150,000) happiness returned as if by magic – the people on this income level were proud and pleased with themselves.

They have become the Joneses.

 Best to get rich slowly  

 There are plenty of get-rich-quick schemes in the world, and plenty of promoters of them who give the impression that they and they alone have the answer to making you wealthy. But as Monica-Jones warns, even if a scheme is legitimate, you cannot apply the promoter’s psyche to another person. 

There are, many argue, a set of circumstances both psychological and social that need to come together to accrue wealth. Andriessen believes you need a mosaic of confidence, self-belief and agency (and trust that the system works) to be wealthy. 

Monica-Jones says it’s one thing to understand financial instruments and know how to budget, but moving from knowing to doing is a big leap of faith. “If we have the confidence, the belief, and can manage risk – then fine. But you have to work on a person’s behaviour, on their individual psychology so that they feel mentally capable,” she says.

It comes down to a final cliché. Is money the root of all evil? Or the means to happiness and prosperity?  Maybe it’s just about your taste in marshmallows. Perhaps it’s none of these. Maybe it’s simply the wealth of our minds that matters.

Personality traits of successful entrepreneurs
  • The OCEAN model defines personality by measuring openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
  • Andriessen at MYMAVINS says entrepreneurs rank higher than others in openness and conscientiousness, but there is little difference between entrepreneurs and employees in extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
  • Entrepreneurs tend to be more open to experience than employees. It’s likely that entrepreneurs thrive on the novelty of new challenges in changing environments which require creative solutions.
  • Potentially the greatest difference between the personalities of entrepreneurs and employees relates to their levels of conscientiousness. “Entrepreneurs back themselves and are attracted to high achievement environments where success is more attributed to their own efforts,” he says.
  • “It’s no wonder that many entrepreneurs can become the victims of their own success. The personality traits of openness to experience and achievement motivation may not sit neatly in larger institutional settings in which business success may not be a function of one’s individual efforts.”