Do Billionaires Have Different Brains Than the Rest of Us?

Their behavior has been bizarre this year, but they must know best. Right?

Robin Li and Bill Gates shaking hands at a conference.
Nothing to see here, just a couple of brilliant billionaires shaking hands.
Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images

Billionaires are a small group, around 3,000 strong, but they own as much wealth as nearly five billion other people combined.

As there are so few of them — and because most Americans, even those who rage against the 1%, seem to respect and admire their success — it’s sometimes easy to dismiss their more erratic decision-making…like when they file for bankruptcy, or decide to run a social media platform into the ground.

Even in their lowest moments, we can assume that billionaires, broadly speaking, are special. Right? How else would they have gotten so far in the first place? In 2018, one Silicon Valley entrepreneur even pledged his brain to a “digital preservation start-up” after he dies. Immortality for a beautiful mind!

Are billionaires so different, though? And if they are, do their brains change after acquiring so much money? (Perhaps that might account for some of their bizarre behavior?)

On the latter point: a recent profile in Fortune, which sourced expertise from a task force of business professors, financial planners and social workers, suggests billionaires actually don’t change that much throughout their lives.

Wealth does appears to magnify personalities — if you were always suspicious about money, or a pain in the ass to work with when you didn’t have any, chances are those things will remain (and compound) once you’ve accrued nine zeroes. But the opposite remains true. Consider, after all, how many thousands of billionaires you haven’t heard of. Many of them are just big thinkers who live boring, consistent lives. A friend of mine works closely with a billionaire at a fund; the man works a 9-5 and emails her throughout the day like any other coworker, when he could conceivably be lying on a yacht in the South of France.

Should he be redeeming an endless vacation for the rest of his life? Well, that’s really up to him, isn’t it? He’s probably learned, over time, that this sort of existence is easier for him to manage and maintain.

After all, the brains of the rich seem most at-risk when wealth comes suddenly: “With sudden wealth, they are thrust into a world they know nothing about — which can lead to isolation, depression, guilt, shame, etc.,” one mental health specialist told Fortune. With gradual wealth, though, most billionaires are able to continue the strategies that got them there in the first place.

Billionaires are pretty smart (45% of them are in the top 1% of cognitive ability, according to a Duke University study), but it’s their learned habits and dogged discipline that set them apart, if anything. According to expansive interviews with dozens among their ranks, billionaires get up early, exercise, read, set aside time for thinking (like a phone-less walk) and most importantly, stick to their routines no matter what.

Adopting those credos will likely not make you a billionaire, and as they’re often self-reported by billionaires, it’s fair to ask whether these titans of industry were carving out time for yoga when they were 23 and hungry. Recency bias always plays a role in celebrity routine round-ups.

Still, in cases of gradual wealth, it’s likely that after making the first million, or hundred million, billionaires settle into a self-fulfilling rhythm that works for them. Not the most relatable sentence, to be sure, but a sign that we likely have more in common with billionaires than we care to admit.

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