Tate Williams

Wealthy are more likely to cheat, lie, be jerks in traffic

Tate Williams February 27, 2012

People in Cadillac Escalades are more likely cut off pedestrians. Those with bigger bank accounts will lie to win cash prizes. And bejeweled fingers will steal candy from the mouths of children.

Ok, so a slight exaggeration, but members of the upper class are, in fact, more likely to conduct unethical behavior, according to a study by published today. In a series of seven laboratory and real world experiments, wealthy subjects were more likely to break traffic rules, cheat in a game of dice, and yes, take candy intended for children.

The streak of wrongdoing among the rich seems tied to a tendency to view greed positively, value one’s own riches above others, and be more willing to break moral rules to secure that wealth. Experimenters also led subjects to feel like they were in higher classes by comparing them to others, and they behaved more dishonestly as a result.

The team of psychologists, led by Paul Piff of UC Berkeley, note that the connection between unethical behavior and wealth is not explicit or direct. In fact, holding a positive outlook on greed had a similar “breaking bad” effect on people of lower classes. The tendency for acting badly weren’t hardwired.

Rather, a set of factors — more independence or privacy, focus on goals, sense of entitlement, less fear of consequences — “may give rise to a set of culturally shared norms among upper-class individuals that facilitates unethical behavior,” the study suggests. People who are comfortable with greed tend to do bad things to others if it will benefit themselves, and people of upper classes tend to be more comfortable with the concept of greed.

Most of the study occurred in the laboratory, with subjects of various demographics both self-reporting their tendencies, but also given different openings to perform an unethical act. In one case, the subjects played a game of dice that they were told would result in a cash prize (the rich were more likely to inflate their scores). In another, experimenters set out a jar of candy intended for children next door, but told subjects they could take some (fancy folk snapped that candy right up more often).

In two real-world examples — both of which I conduct on my own every single day I leave the house — experimenters watched traffic intersections, as fancier cars were more likely to break traffic laws, cutting off drivers and pedestrians. A side note, drivers were overall much more likely to cut off a pedestrian than another car (jerks!).

Before the proletariat rise up, Piff and his team note that plenty of wealthy people are quite altruistic (Warren Buffet), and plenty of low-income people do bad things (people in my neighborhood). Meaning, there’s a lot more analysis of this kind of behavior to be done.

But with people taking to the streets to protest accumulation of wealth, and the class status, tax bracket and vehicular fleet of presidential candidates making news every day, there are interesting implications.

As our findings suggest, the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing. Unethical behavior in the service of self-interest that enhances the individual’s wealth and rank may be a self-perpetuating dynamic that further exacerbates economic disparities in society, a fruitful topic for the future study of social class.

Reference: Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner. 2012. Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. PNAS.

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