Most people don’t want to be billionaires – and this is good for the planet, researchers say

Image by Nattanan Kanchanaprat from Pixabay

A new study questions the long-held economic belief that humans are all motivated to want more and more, which could be important for sustainability policies.

Led by psychologists at the universities of Bath, Bath Spa and Exeter, the study challenges the idea that unlimited wants are human nature, which could have important implications for the planet.

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

“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.”

Across nearly 8000 people from 33 countries spanning six continents, the researchers surveyed how much money people wanted to achieve their ‘absolutely ideal life’. In 86% of countries most people thought they could achieve this with US $10 million or less, and in some countries as little as $1 million.

Whilst these figures may still sound a lot, the researchers stated, when considered that they represent a person’s ideal wealth across their whole life they are relatively moderate.

Expressed differently, the wealth of the world’s single richest person, at over $200 billion, is enough for more than two hundred thousand people to achieve their ‘absolutely ideal lives’.

The researchers collected responses about ideal wealth from individuals in countries across all inhabited continents, including countries rarely used in cross-cultural psychology such as Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Tunisia, Nicaragua, and Vietnam. People with unlimited wants were identified in every country, but they were always in the minority.

They found that those with unlimited wants tended to be younger and city-dwellers, who placed more value on success, power, and independence.

Unlimited wants were also more common in countries with greater acceptance of inequality and in countries that are more collectivistic: focused more on group than individual responsibilities and outcomes.

Co-author, Dr Renata Bongiorno of Bath Spa University and also the University of Exeter, added: “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.

“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.”

The full study is available on the nature sustainability journal website.