Wealthier more likely to act unethically, UC Berkeley researchers find

Courtesy of PNAS.org

Rich people are more likely than poor folks to commit unethical acts, according to a study by researchers in the department of psychology at UC Berkeley.

The team, consisting of Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Dacher Keltnera, assert that the results of seven separate studies reveal the need to alleviate ethical lapses that divide the two sides of the economic spectrum.

The researchers surveyed the ethical tendencies of more than 1,000 individuals of lower, middle and upper-class backgrounds. Volunteers reported their social class by filling out surveys that revealed attitudes about greed and unethical behavior, and by using the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Socioeconomic Status. They also participated in tasks designed to measure their actual unethical behavior.

In their first two studies, researchers observed that people driving expensive cars were more prone to cut off other drivers and pedestrians at a four-way-stop intersection near downtown Berkeley. Observers hid near the intersection and recorded the makes, model years, and conditions to indicate drivers’ social class and whether the cars waited for their turn.

These findings were expanded into a series of follow-up laboratory studies, the first of which presented college students eight different scenarios that implicated an actor in unrightfully taking or benefiting from something, according to the study. The participants filled out a questionnaire, assessing their own socioeconomic status and answering how likely subjects were to behave unethically in the different scenarios.

In one of the questionnaires, students were asked to imagine that their professor made a mistake in grading a test and gave them an A rather than the B they deserved. They were then asked if they would notify their professor of the error. In another scenario, students were asked whether they would keep extra change that was accidentally given to them by a cashier. The results revealed that people of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies.

A separate study put participants into an imagined negotiation in the role of an employer tasked with settling on a salary with a candidate seeking long-term employment. They were told, along with other information, that the position would soon be eliminated. Participants then recorded the chance that they would tell the candidate the truth, and those from the rich were more likely than the poor individuals to lie during the exchange.

The sixth study then focused on actual cheating behavior. A computer presented participants with one side of a six-sided die, seemingly at random, on five different rolls, and were told that higher rolls would increase their chances of winning a cash prize.

At the end of the game, it was revealed that upper-class individuals were more likely to increase their actual score.

The final study focused on whether lower-class individuals’ unethical tendencies would rise to match those of the rich when encouraging them with positive attitudes toward greed. They listed either three things about their day (neutral prime) or three benefits of greed (greed-is-good prime), and then answered questions that investigated their attitudes towards greed.

As the other studies had discovered, individuals of higher economic standing were more likely to endorse unethical behavior at work, such as taking cash or receiving bribes, than those of lower economic standing.

“These findings would reveal that one reason why lower-class individuals tend to act more ethically is that they hold relatively unfavorable attitudes toward greed (and, conversely, that one reason why upper-class individuals tend to act more unethically is that they hold relatively favorable attitudes toward greed),” the authors noted.

According to the study, “upper-class individuals’ relative financial independence from others and increased privacy in their professions may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts.”

The researchers have also found that a person’s ethical standards could easily shift upon receipt of large amounts of money. In earlier studies, the researchers observed that compared to relatively poor people, the wealthy were less likely to act generously. The study’s lead author, Paul Piff, told the Los Angeles Times that he’d like to discover whether the rich would break the rules to further their self-interest.

“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,” stated the authors.

UC Riverside students shared their concerns regarding the findings and their implications for society as a whole. Third-year student Casey Manogue noted that the findings, though unfortunate, were not surprising. “Wealthier people tend to hold more power in society, so often times they think they’re above the rules. This is bad, because nobody should have that entitlement,” stated Manogue.

Third-year student Elizabeth Flynn shared Manogue’s concerns.

“The findings of this research are unfortunate because these wealthy people in power are supposed to make decisions with the interest of all in mind,” she said. “Instead, they’re just looking out for ways to benefit themselves.”
ays to benefit themselves.”

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