Inside Our Fascination With The Filthy Rich

Illustration by Paola Delucca.

There's the one percent and there's the one percent of the one percent. This is a story about the latter. They only fly private, wouldn’t think twice about dropping $2,000 for a pizza covered in 24-karat gold, and put deposits on a casual chance at space travel. In recent years, they have become not just real-life people about whom we occasionally hear astounding stories but also the captivating characters who dominate our television screens. And on October 11 — when Dynasty, one of The CW’s most anticipated new shows, premieres — we’re going to start seeing a lot more of them. There's glamour, intrigue, and cat fighting, and bets are on that this will be the next series to bank on our seemingly endless appetite for diving into the lives of the filthy rich. If psychology, consumer behavior, and the history of entertainment hold true, these hunches are spot on.

Think about why you tune in to a television show episode after episode. In addition to wondering what will happen next, you become invested in some or all of the characters’ lives. Marketers and psychologists have, for years, measured this on what they’ve coined the connectedness scale. “We determine this based on the degree to which people think of a series and especially its characters as ‘real,’” says Cristel Russell, PhD, professor of marketing at the Kogod Business School at American University. “It is a form of parasocial relationship.” These rapports require that one party becomes invested in the life of another without the second party knowing the first exists — it’s completely one-sided.

And while you might surmise that it’s difficult to feel connected to a character living in a 25-bedroom mansion when you live in a studio apartment, we are generally able to get beyond this discrepancy. “It is not these characters’ lifestyles that ring of similarity but their personalities that prompt connectedness,” Russell says. Not only that, but it’s all quite aspirational. “You can connect to characters on both a personal level — you see they exhibit similar traits to you — and because you wish you were living your life as they live theirs,” says Anthony Patino, PhD, a media-industry veteran and associate professor of marketing at the University of San Francisco.

If wildly wealthy characters are engaging, they are all-out phenomenons when they behave badly.

The same reasoning stands for why we’re so captivated by the drama of it all. Because if wildly wealthy characters are engaging, they are all-out phenomenons when they behave badly. “Everyone loves to see which people fail in a way, because it shows their vulnerability,” says Patino. “That vulnerability might serve to connect these characters to audiences, who think, Okay, they make mistakes like me, so I can be like them. It makes identifying with the characters easier.”

Illustration by Paola Delucca.

For Russell, it’s all part of a love-hate relationship. “We love to think we can aspire to have some of the nice lifestyles featured in those shows — the clothes, the cars, the houses, etc.,” she says. “But we also hate those people who can afford and to some extent waste things and be so conspicuous about it. It comes down to some mix of aspiration and disgust.”

If you think that’s all a little delusional, you’re right. “We tend to see ourselves in a different financial position than we are,” says Sonya Britt-Lutter, PhD, a financial therapist and associate professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “And if we aren’t in the financial position we see, we can make ourselves live that lifestyle. It’s really easy to pretend to be something you’re not when it comes to money. I can use my credit card, and I can go have the same vacation as my best friend. I may not be able to pay off my credit card, but I can certainly take the trip.”

It’s really easy to pretend to be something you’re not when it comes to money.

Yet, even if we do realize the vast, probably unbridgeable discrepancy between our bank balances and those of the characters we love (or love to hate), we still have at least one, indisputable thing in common with them: the need to deal in and manage money.

“That’s a necessity for life,” says Britt-Lutter. “We have to pay rent, we have to buy food, we have to pay for clothing, we have to make decisions about what to do with our finances. I may have to decide what to do with $500 instead of $5 million, but it’s still that same basic concept of that tension about money.”

Illustration by Paola Delucca.

While there’s plenty of hoopla — and, yes, real research — around the negative repercussions of emulating what we see on television and the movies, we too often discount the potential positives of watching characters revel in and battle about money, says Britt-Lutter. “Money is taboo — we’re not supposed to talk about it. But what if these forms of entertainment get me and whomever I’m sitting with to open up the conversation? If I’m with my partner, we might discuss what we'd do in that situation. If I’m so lucky as to watch with my parents or my adult children, it could bring up some really interesting conversations.”

That taboo is exactly why it’s unlikely our fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous will go anywhere anytime soon.

That taboo is exactly why it’s unlikely our fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous will go anywhere anytime soon. “While I’d love to see us as a society talk openly about how much money we make or how much we’re spending on our mortgage as a percentage of our income, I think that'd be a huge change, and I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon,” says Britt-Lutter. “This interest in how other people are actually handling their money, even if it doesn’t correspond with our socioeconomic status, is going to persist for quite some time. The bubble isn’t going to burst.”

Tune in to Dynasty Wednesdays at 9/8c on The CW.