A Review of "The Natural History of the Rich" by Richard Coniff

Richard Coniff takes some of the lessons he has learned from writing a number of books on natural history, specifically, the behavior of nonhuman animals in their natural habitats, and extrapolates them to those rarest members of the human species, the Super Rich. On the one hand, his extrapolations put human behavior (most often in this book, human foibles) in its proper place in the animal kingdom as well as provide a clever, entertaining read. On the other, one must be circumspect in accepting the validity of rather casually drawn parallels.

The book is an interesting mix of the results of scientifically established naturalistic observations of animals and entertaining anecdotes deriving from the author’s observations about and encounters with people with tons of money.  The point of the book is to argue that, in the end, rich people are very much like other animals.  It was fun to read, but I would add a couple of cautionary notes in reading it. First, very rich people probably aren’t different from the rest of us, it’s just that their behavior is of more interest to those of us falling outside their lofty economic circumstances. Put another way, focusing on the ways of the rich sells more books. Second, one needs to be cautious in extrapolating observations on, say, a primate troop’s Alpha male to very rich, or less-than-rich humans. 

I approach extrapolations between species based on similarity of appearance of behavior between the two in the way I have been trained—with healthy skepticism.  Sometimes the comparison can be right-on, but at other times the behavior may appear to be similar, but it could be controlled by either similar or different processes. To me and others involved in the science of behavior, the distinction is important. An animal’s patterns of mating, for example, could be determined by its evolutionary history, but a human’s mating behavior may be the result of more intricate social contingencies. This is not to say that the two couldn’t have the same origins, only that we don’t know and therefore should be cautious in assuming that they are the "same" (or different, for that matter) until we examine their origins in sufficient detail.

The potential error of taking similarity in behavioral structure or form as an index of similar behavioral processes is well known to those involved in assessing and managing human performance. It would be unusual for a manager to assume that similar performance outcomes for two units were due to similar managerial processes, without a more careful analysis of the situation. On such an analysis, an astute manager might discover that Unit A achieved its performance because the unit was run by someone skilled in positively reinforcing productive behavior, while Unit B’s performance was achieved because the unit was run by a bullying, threatening tyrant. Calling the performance equal is nominally valid, but not functionally so. Relying on the latter technique may have other detrimental effects on morale, and thus productivity, in the long run.

As a sophisticated chronicler of the natural world, Mr. Coniff seems aware of the issues of such grand extrapolations, noting at one point that “[t]he leap from hangflies to humans is, of course, perilous” (Chapter 10).  Readers of this book, and managers too, should keep his cautionary observation in mind as they enjoy these cleverly crafted parallels between our wealthier counterparts and our cousins in the natural world.  


Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.