Surprise: Studies Show Rich People are more Unethical than Poor People
The rich are different, wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald 88 years ago in his novel The Great Gatsby. Last week, a team of five researchers that conducted a set of seven psychological experiments confirmed Fitzgerald’s opinion, specifying that the rich behave more unethically and greedily than lower-class individuals.
The team—four Psychology professors from the University of California at Berkeley and a Business professor from the University of Toronto—conducted two “naturalistic” field studies to determine if the rich were more likely to break the law while driving, and five laboratory studies gauging upper-class attitudes and propensities toward unethical decision-making. In all seven studies, the rich subjects behaved more unethically and harbored positive opinions of greed that helped justify their selfishness.
In Studies 1 and 2, volunteers at a busy intersection observed whether those drivers who broke traffic laws by cutting off other vehicles or pedestrians were more likely to be driving expensive cars. Overall, 12.4% of drivers cut in front of other vehicles and 34.9% failed to yield to a pedestrian. But rich drivers broke the law at a far greater rate: they cut off other cars 29.6% of the time and failed to yield 46.2% of the time, while lower class drivers did so only 7.7% of the time and not at all, respectively.
Studies 3 and 4 attempted to measure the relationship between class and attitudes toward ethics. In Study 3, subjects read a set of eight scenarios involving unethical decisions that lead to profit, with upper class persons much more likely to engage in the wrongful conduct. In Study 4, the subjects were asked to take a jar of candies to some children in a nearby lab, and were told they could take some if they wanted. The rich subjects took more candy that would otherwise go to children than did the lower class subjects.
Studies 5 and 6 measured positive attitudes toward greed and the tendency to behave unethically. In Study 5, after completing a survey on their attitudes toward greed, subjects assumed the role of an employer negotiating with a job candidate and were told that the mock job would soon be eliminated. Reporting the chance they would tell the job candidate the truth about job stability, the rich subjects were far more likely to lie than the lower class ones. In Study 6, rich subjects were much more likely to cheat at a dice game by falsely inflating their scores. In both cases, the differences were explained by the fact that the rich viewed greed in a more positive light than did the lower class subjects.
Study 7 measured whether encouraging positive attitudes about greed increases unethical tendencies among lower-class individuals to rise to the levels of the upper-class. After listing either three things about their day or three benefits of greed, subjects’ attitudes toward greed were assessed and their propensity to engage in unethical behaviors at work determined. As in the other studies, the rich reported much more unethical behavior than the lower class, but for those subjects prompted to write about the benefits of greed, lower-class participants showed high levels of unethical behavior at a par with the upper-class subjects.
Thus, according to the study, the rich are more likely to break traffic laws, to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, to take things of value from others, to lie in a negotiation, to cheat to win a game, and to endorse unethical behavior at work, than were lower-class individuals. Moreover, the data showed that a positive attitude toward greed was the main driver for the wealthy’s tolerance of and participation in unethical conduct. Or, as St. Paul once put it, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
To Learn More:
Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior (by Paul K. Piffa, Daniel M. Stancato, et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
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