How Monopoly Predicts Entrepreneur Empathy

by . May 6th, 2014

What Monopoly and Its History Tells Us About Ourselves

We don’t play board games nearly as much as we used to – thanks in part to the very same set of technologies that allow you to read this article. Despite this, one classic board game continues to enjoy massive popularity and cause low-level discord between friends and family: Monopoly.

This classic game has hundreds of different official versions in 111 countries and in 43 languages. It’s also played under millions of different, mostly unofficial sets of house rules. It’s often touted as the game for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-at-heart alike. Which is interesting given that the game had anti-capitalist origins.

While Monopoly was first published by the Parker Brothers in 1935, the game had existed in various forms at least 3 decades earlier, the earliest known of which was The Landlord’s Gamean agit-prop teaching tool created by Elizabeth Magie, a noted socialist.

She’d found that it was difficult to explain the effects of land monopolism and how it could be countered, so she designed The Landlord’s Game to demonstrate those ideas. She applied and was later awarded a patent for her creation.

Shortly after she self-published her game, a different version was  published in Scotland and bootleg copies were being played in college campuses throughout the US. Up until 1932 she designed, patented, and distributed a few more different versions of the game – a few through Parker Brothers – with varying degrees of success.

The game we now know as Monopoly came just two years later, when Charles Todd taught Charles Darrow a version of The Landlord’s Game he developed in Atlantic City – a legacy retained in Monopoly’s property names.

Charles Darrow would take  Todd’s version of Magie’s game, change the name to Monopoly, patent it, and sell it to Parker Brothers – only to be rejected.

The following year, he independently distributed the game and had success securing orders from several Philadelphia department stores. Finally able to demonstrate proof of demand, he made another more successful pitch to Parker Brothers, becoming a millionaire in the height of the Great Depression.

Right Place at The Right Time

When developing The Landlord’s Game, Magie intentionally designed it to be unfair in the sense that skill was somewhat less important than luck. This aspect carried over to later versions of her game and is often cited as a flaw in Monopoly. Arguably though, it’s one of the more realistic parts of the game. Luck figures into nearly every real-world business venture.

There’s a belief that if you have a great idea and are willing to work hard for it, that success is just something that happens. Was Charles Darrow a better entrepreneur and innovator than Elizabeth Magie, or was he just lucky to be in the right place at the right time?

Also, so what if Darrow didn’t invent the game all by himself? While he didn’t develop any of the core ideas behind Monopoly, he did through his other contributions and persistence, manage to get it published – in the middle of the most severe economic depression to hit America. That’s no mean feat. It’s not exactly his fault he was in the right place at the right time.

His fault however, was that he did claim he invented the whole thing, even though his biggest contributions to the actual game were the new name, the playing pieces, and the now familiar color coded properties. Until recently, Darrow was listed as sole inventor by Hasbro, Monopoly‘s current owner, on their website.

Speaking of names, it was discovered years later that he even plagiarized Charles Todd’s misspelling of Marven Gardens (as ‘Marvin Gardens’), a neighborhood in Atlantic City. Clearly he wasn’t solely responsible for the game. In his book Monopolygate, Ralph Anspach lists Liz Magie, Jesse Raiford, Ruth Hoskins, Louis and Ferdinand Thun, Daniel Layman, and many others as responsible for the game’s development.

While not exactly building his work on the shoulders of giants, how could Darrow have claimed – and by all accounts believed – that it was all his doing?

Surprisingly enough, it may have something to do with how we all react to being in positions of power, and how the human brain may make sense of advantage.

Here’s Where It Gets Meta:

As part of a seven-year long series of studies, researchers from UC Berkeley tried to see if people belonging to lower economic status would engage in less pro-social behavior than those who were better off. Surprisingly, researchers found the opposite to be true. Repeated tests showed people  in positions of power were much less likely to show generosity and compassion than those less well-off.

They also found that individuals who had a sense of power were much more likely to attribute their success to their own doing instead of to favorable circumstance – no matter how obviously advantageous those situations were. One of the experiments appropriately enough, was a rigged Monopoly game.

Paul Piff’s December 2013 TEDx Talk “Does Money Make You Mean?”

While we recommend that you that entire talk, we know not everyone would have the time to go through it, so here’s a rundown of the mentioned studies from the TED Blog, written by Jessica Gross. While the first point is the most relevant, the others offer plenty of food for thought.

Finding #1:

We rationalize advantage by convincing ourselves we deserve it

The study: In a UC Berkeley study, Piff had more than 100 pairs of strangers play Monopoly. A coin-flip randomly assigned one person in each pair to be the rich player: they got twice as much money to start with, collected twice the salary when they passed go, and rolled both dice instead of one, so they could move a lot farther. Piff used hidden cameras to watch the duos play for 15 minutes.

The results: The rich players moved their pieces more loudly, banging them around the board, and displayed the type of enthusiastic gestures you see from a football player who’s just scored a touchdown. They even ate more pretzels from a bowl sitting off to the side than the players who’d been assigned to the poor condition, and started to become ruder to their opponents.

Moreover, the rich players’ understanding of the situation was completely warped: after the game, they talked about how they’d earned their success, even though the game was blatantly rigged, and their win should have been seen as inevitable. “That’s a really, really incredible insight into how the mind makes sense of advantage,” Piff says.

Finding #2: People who make less are more generous…on the small scale

The study: Piff brought rich and poor members of the community into his lab, and gave each participant the equivalent of $10. They were told they could keep the money for themselves, or share a portion with a stranger.

The results: The participants who made under $25,000, and even sometimes $15,000, gave 44% more to the stranger than those making $150,000 to $200,000 per year.

Finding #3: People who make less are more generous…on the large scale

The study: A 2012 Chronicle of Philanthropy study examined Internal Revenue Service records of Americans who earned at least $50,000 in 2008, then charted charitable giving across every state, city and ZIP code in the US.

The results: On average, households that earned $50,000 to $75,000 gave of 7.6 percent of their income to charity, while those who made make $100,000 or more gave 4.2 percent. Rich people who lived in less economically diverse—that is, wealthier—neighborhoods gave an even smaller percentage of their income to charity than those in more diverse neighborhoods: in ZIP codes where more than 40 percent of people made more than $200,000 a year, the average rate of giving was just 2.8 percent.

Finding #4: Rich people are more likely to ignore pedestrians

The study: In California, where drivers are legally required to stop for pedestrians, Piff had a confederate approach a crosswalk repeatedly as cars passed by, trying to cross the street. He videotaped the scenario for hundreds of vehicles over several days.

The results: The more expensive the car, the less likely the driver was to stop for the pedestrian—that is, the more likely they were to break the law. None of the drivers in the least-expensive-car category broke the law. Close to 50 percent of drivers in the most-expensive-car category did, simply ignoring the pedestrian on the side of the road.

Finding #5: Poverty impedes cognitive function

The study: In this study published a few months ago, researchers Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and others measured farmers’ mental function a month before their harvests (when they were hurting for money) and then again a month after (when they felt flush). In a separate part of the study, they had poor and well-off participants think about finances, then determined the participants’ cognitive performance.

The results: As Mullainathan details in The New York Times, the same farmers performed worse before the harvest, when they had less money, than afterward, when they had more. And not just a little worse: their I.Q. before the harvest was 9-10 points lower, the same detriment caused by an entire night without sleep. As for the other part of the study: when poor participants thought about finances, they performed worse. Rich participants weren’t affected at all.

Finding #6: Those with less are better at reading facial expressions

The study: In 2010, a series of studies out of UCSF asked more than 300 upper- and lower-class participants to analyze the facial expressions of people in photos, and of strangers in mock interviews, to discern their emotions.

The results: The lower-class participants were better able to read faces in both cases. That is, they exhibited more “emotional intelligence, the ability to read the emotions that others are feeling,” as one of the study authors told NBC. But, if upper-class participants were told to imagine themselves in the position of lower-class people, it boosted their ability to detect other people’s emotions, counteracting the blinders-like effect of their wealth.

Piff says, “Reminding people of the benefits of cooperation, or the advantages of community, cause wealthier individuals to be just as egalitarian as poor people. In one study, we had people watch a brief video, just 46 seconds long, about childhood poverty that served as a reminder of the needs of others in the world around them…After watching that,we looked at how willing people were to offer up their own time to a stranger presented to them in the lab who was in distress.

For the benefit of those who weren’t able to watch the whole video, Piff goes on to explain that countering the psychological effects of wealth is actually fairly simple, and a simple reminder is all that’s needed to make someone less of a d-bag.

Continuing, Piff concludes, “After watching this video, an hour later,rich people became just as generous of their own time to help out this other person, a stranger, as someone who’s poor, suggesting that these differences are not innate or categorical, but are so malleable to slight changes in people’s values, and little nudges of compassion and bumps of empathy.”

Criticism of the Studies

Critics of the studies argue that money and power only reveal how you really are, and the results don’t necessarily mean that an increase in economic status equals a change in neurochemistry. Other critics point out that the studies did not adequately take into account different cultural experiences that could make for a more accurate conclusion.

However, it’s important to realize that the results span several different studies with different researchers over several years, and involved multiple experiments. It’s safe to say that an increase in wealth may very well have an effect on our behavior, though perhaps not exactly in the way researchers describe.


Monopoly is more than just a game, and how we play it could reveal a lot more about ourselves than we previously thought. One also wonders what would have happened if someone urged Charles Darrow to be more mindful. Perhaps his legacy would be less tarnished and he’d be remembered in a more forgiving light, and not just as someone who ripped other people’s ideas off.

Basic Instructions by Scott Meyer
Entrepreneurship is often misunderstood by those not familiar with how it really is. It gets enough of a bad rap as it is. It’s the little things, like the perception that entreps and rich people in general are greedy that turn off so many talented people from it.

When was the last time you were honest about the credit you give yourself and others? If you want to build a legacy that people look at favorably, being grounded and honest about what really led to your success and being grateful certainly couldn’t hurt.

Bonus!:  WikiHow Guide: How To Cheat At Monopoly

Image Credits, Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via WikiCommons, Public Domain, Hasbro,

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Having less, giving more: the influence of social class on prosocial behavior. PK Piff, MW Kraus, S Côté, BH Chen – Journal of personality, 2010 –
  • Social class, sense of control, and social explanation. MW Kraus, PK Piff, D Keltner – Journal of personality and social …, 2009 –
  • Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior, PK Piff, DM Stancato, S Côté… – Proceedings of the …, 2012 – National Acad Sciences
  • Social class as culture the convergence of resources and rank in the social realm, MW Kraus, PK Piff, D Keltner – Current Directions in, 2011 –
  • Social class, solipsism, and contextualism: how the rich are different from the poor. MW Kraus, PK Piff, R Mendoza-Denton… – Psychological …, 2012 –
  • My brother’s keeper? Compassion predicts generosity more among less religious individuals, LR Saslow, R Willer, M Feinberg, PK Piff – Social Psychological …, 2013 –
  • For whom do the ends justify the means? Social class and utilitarian moral judgment.S Côté, PK Piff, R Willer – Journal of personality and social …, 2013 –



Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.