Why do we think rich people must be smart?

In the last few weeks the news cycle has run headlines about a couple of prominent rich guys behaving badly. Or perhaps not badly but certainly stupidly. First Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, went public with being blackmailed after sending “dick pics” to a girlfriend (that is, a woman other than his soon-to-be ex-wife). Then Robert Kraft, billionaire owner of the Superbowl champion New England Patriots was charged with soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage parlour (his lawyers deny Kraft was engaged in any illegal activity).

One question that was often asked in the wake of both scandals is how two people who had so much money could be involved in such behaviour. Bezos practically owns the Internet, did he not understand that exposing himself in emails was a bad idea? And why would someone with as much money as Kraft be caught dead going to a massage parlour, where the sexual favours on the menu start at $70?

Part of the problem is in our understanding of intelligence. People can be smart in very different ways. Many academics, for example, have no practical common sense at all. I’ve known prominent scientists, considered among the greatest minds in their field in the world, who are totally incapable of carrying on a conversation. Business people know how to make money, but that may be it. Someone who is mechanically inclined might not know how to read. Intelligence comes in many different forms.

Perhaps an even bigger obstacle though, especially when it comes to thinking about the situations Bezos and Kraft found themselves in, is our belief that anyone who is rich must be smart, as there is no clearer marker of success in our society than having a lot of money. Donald Trump has exploited this misconception as much as anyone, despite the fact that (1) he’d have far more money if he’d just invested his massive inheritance in the stock market instead of getting involved in the real estate business, and (2) he’s declared bankruptcy many times. It’s also believed that he vastly overstates his personal wealth in order to make himself seem richer (and hence smarter) than he is.

Instead of acknowledging that rich people might not be all that smart (most rich people, after all, were born rich) we see other explanations offered for these latest incidents. Like the sense of privilege billionaires have: their belief that they are somehow above the law and that normal rules don’t apply to them. I think there may be some of that at work. Rich people do live in a bubble, surrounded by people who flatter their vanity and who would never dream of telling them when they’re doing something wrong. Still, I think the most likely explanation is that a lot of rich people are smart when it comes to making money but not so much with regard to other things. That should not surprise anyone.

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