The Age of The Wendigo

Greed breeds cannibalism.

The Age of The Wendigo
Superhero Whoozie

Once upon a time, a hunter got lost in the woods. Hunger drove him to cannibalism. Then he went insane. He decided to stay in the forest forever, roaming the woods for new victims.

He became the first wendigo.

I've been reading a lot about the wendigo, an Algonquian legend. You could think of it as a demon that can possess someone, creating an insatiable hunger that drives them to cannibalism and murder. Once you commit cannibalism, real or figurative, you become a wendigo yourself. According to folklorists and ethnographers, the wendigo offers a cautionary tale about greed and the importance of community.

They're also just scary as hell.

If you want to see someone's soul, don't stare deeply into their eyes or ask them their sign. Play a game of Monopoly.

See if their wendigo comes out.

Psychologists at the University of California had students play rigged Monopoly with each other. They gave one player twice as much money starting out. The privileged player got two dice to roll with, enabling them to move around the board twice as fast. They also collected twice as much money every time they passed Go. The researchers wanted to see what the rich players would do. They wondered if they'd help the poor players out and try to even the playing field a little.

Lol, no.

None of them did that.

The rich players acted like jerks. They got louder and more aggressive. They bragged about their success. They even started moving their opponents' pieces for them.

After the game, the researchers asked them what made the biggest difference in their victory. None of them mentioned all of the extra advantages they got. Instead, they attributed it to their skill. They talked about their business acumen.

You might've come across the Monopoly study before. My mind returns to it several times a year as we get deeper into the 2020s. One thing really stands out to me now. The rich players didn't just get louder and more aggressive. They didn't just brag. They literally took over the game, to the point they were moving their opponents' pieces around for them.

I figured out why that little detail matters.

The "winners" stripped the last little bit of agency they could from the "loser," who couldn't even move their own little elf shoe anymore. The rich players did more than dominate.

They dehumanized.

Hey, it's just a game. Right?

Unfortunately, it's just one example of how the super rich lose their humanity. Paul Piff included the Monopoly study in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior." In one case, the super rich literally took candy from children. Piff has been careful about how he phrases his research. Speaking to New York Magazine, he says, "While having money doesn't necessarily make anybody anything... it makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."

Or sociopaths.

A study in Psychological Science found that the super rich struggle to interpret facial expressions compared to the working class. The same author, Michael Kraus, also found that people with less money are more pro-social in general. They give more than rich people. They're more charitable.

They're more generous.

Kraus even found that "lower-class individuals show greater subjective and physiological threat responses to ambiguous situations." They demonstrate "increased threat sensitivity." That used to be seen as a bad thing. Now psychologists are overturning that assumption, instead finding that being less rich promotes a tendency to "engage in more affiliative behaviors that build cooperative networks for withstanding challenges." They also experience "heart rate deceleration" when showing compassion to others. It's actually not stressful for them.

So, being not rich makes you more perceptive of threats. It makes you more compassionate. It makes you more generous. It makes you more oriented toward your community. You're more likely to help your friends and neighbors in trouble.

They're called tend-and befriend strategies, the kind documented by Rebecca Solnit and Naomi Klein. During times of crisis and disaster, the bottom 90 percent tend to pull together and help each other, while the rich panic about their stuff.

Extreme wealth does the opposite.

Not only are the rich worse at tend-and befriend strategies, they also act like sociopaths. Piff, the guy who ran the Monopoly study, also found that owning a luxury car made someone four times more likely to run through walkways, even when pedestrians were on them. They were worse drivers, more likely to cut off other motorists. Yet another study found that merely exposing someone to money made them more likely to lie and cheat. Being rich makes you more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse, especially to cope with problems like parental pressure and neglect.

Here's where things get really interesting:

You can become addicted to money.

Specifically, you can become addicted to the action of generating and accruing wealth. It feels good. It creates a sense of power and security. It releases dopamine. Psychologists describe it as a process addiction or a behavioral addiction. Tian Dayton wrote about it in The Huffpost a long time ago; "The person who uses money to mood alter can have their relationship with money spin out of control; by being overly focused on accumulating it, spending it, hoarding it, or using it to control people, places and things." It's not the same as drug or alcohol addiction. It doesn't always carry negative connotations or stigmas, even if it ultimately harms you.

Society might even reward it.

Let's recap:

Someone has a wealth addiction when they focus on accumulating it to the exclusion of everything else while hoarding it and using it to control others. Too much wealth harms your ability to connect with others and build community. It makes you less compassionate and less socially-oriented.

It also makes you less sensitive to threats.

Studies have also documented that once you have enough money to provide for your needs, more money doesn't make you happier. It makes you more miserable.

Daniel Gilbert calls it "experience-stretching." In the context of wealth, consuming luxury goods and hoarding money only feeds your appetite for more while diminishing your capacity to appreciate simpler and more mundane experiences. As Gilbert's studies showed, simply exposing someone to money lowered their ability to savor a chocolate bar.

Almost 40 years ago, Anne Wilson Schaef argued in When Society Becomes an Addict that American consumer culture bred addiction and addictive behaviors.

Compulsive behavior drives profits.

The last decade has only proven Schaef right. When you look at the way the elite talk about money, when you listen to your friends talk about binge-watching their favorite shows, when you watch someone engage in endless scrolling on their phones, when you read about the retail therapy fueled by fast fashion, when you witness people sacrifice their own health to dine out or go to movies, you're watching compulsive behavior.

You're watching process addictions.

The rich are addicted to wealth and profit, and they drive addictions to their products. In a master stroke of irony, they're also happy to sell us a slate of books, courses, blogs, and podcasts about mindfulness, gratitude, and minimalism.

Oprah will sell you a gratitude jar.

Now let's fold this into some statements we've heard from Pfizer CEOs and investors over the last few years. During a 2022 earnings call, the company celebrated the drop of mask mandates. One of their presidents predicted that "People are going to get out there... infections are going to increase...that's the role that Paxlovid can play." Pfizer spent $25 million, not on research, but on lobbying Congress to protect their patents on vaccines and treatments. In 2021 alone, they doubled their revenue, bringing in more than $81 billion.

Actual journalists attending the meeting were shocked at how Pfizer officials spoke in cheerful tones, directly acknowledging how the end of mask mandates and social distancing would increase infections. Even the company's chief science officer described the chronically ill and immunocompromised as "a real new opportunity growth area for Paxlovid to do very well."

That Pfizer call is old news for a lot of us, but it stands in our memories as an especially flagrant example of things that are still going on. Now it's the agriculture industry putting profits before people, lobbying climate conferences while feeding chicken litter infected with bird flu to their cattle, then acting surprised when a fifth of milk samples start testing positive for viral presence. Industry heads roll their eyes and tell us milk, beef, and poultry are perfectly safe to consume.

"Don't panic," they say.

This isn't about one particular public health crisis. It's about the attitude that brought us here to the slow collapse of everything we know. It's hardly surprising. You can't run a society when the richest people behave like sociopaths, indulging addictions to wealth while driving us toward addictive, compulsive behaviors that generate revenue for them.

Maybe it sounds dramatic to say we're becoming wendigos, in the collective sense. Tell me what better describes a society that praises and rewards someone for making a fortune by depriving their workers of fair pay and healthcare. Tell me what better describes a corporate culture that talks openly about profiting off sickness and death, to the point that it encourages infection with dangerous diseases.

Tell me what better describes the members of society who celebrate egregious wealth when piles of studies, along with our own personal observations, confirm that egregious wealth simply makes someone miserable and feeds their greed.

Tell me what better describes a culture where books and podcasts on stoicism, mindfulness, and minimalism simply provide a sprinkling over a vast network of profit and consumption, where our politicians constantly brag about how well the economy is doing even while families can't afford groceries or medicine.

Tell me what better describes a culture where our icons are known for outsourcing every aspect of their personal lives to an assistant, even care for their own children, while they engage in compulsive behaviors to accrue more wealth.

Tell me what better describes a class of CEOs, bankers, brokers, vice presidents, chiefs of finance, hedge fund managers, and middle managers whose sole job it is to force the rest of us to produce and consume endlessly to generate profits for them, even at the expensive of our own health and sanity. And yet, we never see any of those profits. The average CEO makes 300 times more than their own workers, all while bragging about it, and those workers are forced to take out loans for a cheeseburger while deferring their own modest dreams of owning a home, retiring, or sending their children to a safe school.

Tell me that's not a form of cannibalism. That doesn't sound like a healthy culture to me.

It sounds like a wendigo.

It's not hopeless.

There's only one way to fight a wendigo. It's not with arrows or guns. You fight it by doing the opposite of cannibalism. You build community. You support people. You help them. You listen. You pay attention to threats and deal with them.

Compassion is resistance.

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