The High Cost of the High Price of B-School

Monopoly and the High Price of B-School

It’s the end of the holiday season, and many of us are counting the cost of eating and drinking more than we thought possible. Nothing was worth watching on any of several hundred TV channels, and if you couldn’t face talking to your relatives any more, you may have turned in desperation to the old family favorite, Monopoly.

But no matter how bad things were in your living room, over at University of California, Berkeley, they are even worse. Here, social psychologist Paul Piff has, in the name of science, come up with a rigged version of the classic board game where luck, skill, and intelligence count for nothing. In the Berkeley game, only the player who receives the most property and money from a stacked deck has any chance of winning.

The favored player quickly begins to overwhelm his opponent but, in a bid to preserve some semblance of humanity, starts off by continuously apologizing for his apparent good fortune. What is really interesting, however, is that this is decidedly short-lived behavior. Within 10 minutes he is acting like Caligula on a bad day, delighting in his opponent’s destruction. It seems that winning does not bring out the best in us after all, as my sister had drily observed.

The game has reinforced the findings of a paper produced by Piff earlier this year, which showed that the further up the socio-economic ladder you are, the less empathetic you become. And that means you’re likely to be less ethical, more selfish and insular, and less compassionate. It can even, as one of Piff’s experiments showed, make you prone to stealing candy from small children.

Oh, dear ….

So how does this affect the world of business education? While I’m certainly not suggesting that top schools are actively promoting candy stealing, I worry that with an MBA from a top two-year business school now costing as much as $126,576, before accounting for rent, food, and personal expenses, such a significant investment is stacking the deck to become the reserve of a wealthy elite. And if too many classmates start the game at the equivalent of Monopoly’s Go! with an over-developed sense of entitlement, we’ll create a leadership elite that has little or nothing in common with the average person.

So it was great to hear from a friend who had spent time this year on a poverty project in East Bali as part of her MBA at the Vlerick Business School in Belgium. The school requires that all MBA students spend an extra month at the end of the program “giving something back,” whether working for an NGO or social enterprise, with the aim of actually helping improve people’s lives. The experience had clearly been eye-opening and provided a welcome perspective on how her freshly minted business skills could make a difference beyond the return on shareholder value.

There are many other similar initiatives at business schools elsewhere—from fundraising to mentoring, environmental activism to volunteering at shelters—that involve students, faculty, and staff who don’t need the prod of an MBA Oath to consider the interests of others.

It is great to see that giving is not limited to the holiday season. In my view, that’s the only way we might end up with the business leaders we want, rather than the business leaders we deserve.

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