Friday, March 09, 2012

The rich behaving badly

No big surprise, I guess, but here is a gem from Piff et al. that shows in a variety of different experimental settings that higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. The authors agree with Plato and Aristotle, who deemed greed to be at the root of personal immorality.
Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.
Some details on the first four studies: Studies 1 and 2 were naturalistic field studies that used observers’ codes of vehicle status (make, age, and appearance,known to be reliable indicators of a person’s social rank and wealth) to index drivers’ social class. Observers stood near the intersection, coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn, a behavior that defies the California Vehicle Code. In study 3 participants who reported their social class using the MacArthur scale of subjective socioeconomic status read eight different scenarios that implicated an actor in unrightfully taking or benefiting from something, and reported the likelihood that they would engage in the behavior described. In study 4 participants were primed to activate higher or lower social-class mindsets. The experimenter then presented participants with a jar of individually wrapped candies, ostensibly for children in a nearby laboratory, but informed them that they could take some if they wanted. This task was adapted from prior research on entitlement, and served as our measure of unethical behavior because taking candy would reduce the amount that would otherwise be given to children. Participants completed unrelated tasks and then reported the number of candies they had taken.


  1. the obvious question is

    is it unethical behavior that leads to riches

    or does perception of self as superior (eg being rich) lead to unethical behavior?

    on the one hand it would be classic predatory behavior by those who take advantage of the meekness of the majority and on the other it would be more akin to dominance of the strong over the weak

    ie they are either sneaky, underhanded, thieving liars

    or they are nasty, bullying sons-o-bitches

    opportunistic behavior (eg cutting in) does not seem to be something only the rich will do

    and bullying is can be found at all levels

    i'd wonder if it's actually a more complex issue

    correlations - mistakenly leading to causation

    perhaps it's as simple as this

    we are all dishonest, opportunistic, lying scum bags

    but most of us are aware that the rest of us are watching and behave accordingly

    the rich are not as hampered by the foibles of self delusion

    ie the rich are just what we'd all be if we were all more honest with ourselves, more brave, less conflicted and confused

    or maybe they are indeed just low life jerks and we should mandate that they all be locked up and subjected to daily floggings (and their possessions distributed between the rest of us)


  2. I think the link is not working. If you fix it, let me know. I would love to read the study.

  3. Anonymous6:26 PM

    I read once that some people, instead of shame, have an extra set of balls. That seems to apply here as well.

  4. I redid the link, and it seems to be working. I can provide the PDF of the whole article to those who are interested.