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Shame on the Rich

27 February 2012 3:01 pm
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P. Piff et al., PNAS Early Edition (2012)

Bimmers behaving badly. Upper-class people (and motorists) are more likely to behave in ways that flout the rules, such as not stopping for pedestrians at a crosswalk.

For fans of the British upstairs-downstairs TV series Downton Abbey, skullduggery may seem evenly distributed among the social ranks. But in real life, it's the upper classes that are more likely to behave dishonorably, according to new research.

Observers of human nature have long puzzled over the possibility of an ethical class divide. On the one hand, people with fewer resources and dimmer prospects might be expected to do whatever's necessary to get ahead. On the other, wealthy types may be more focused on themselves, because money, independence, and freedom can insulate people from the plight of others. They may also be less generous: Studies involving money games show that upper-class subjects keep more for themselves, and U.S. surveys find that the rich give a smaller percentage of their income to charity than do the poor.

To see whether dishonesty varies with social class, psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues devised a series of tests, working with groups of 100 to 200 Berkeley undergraduates or adults recruited online. Subjects completed a standard gauge of their social status, placing an X on one of 10 rungs of a ladder representing their income, education, and how much respect their jobs might command compared with other Americans.

The team's findings suggest that privilege promotes dishonesty. For example, upper-class subjects were more likely to cheat. After five apparently random rolls of a computerized die for a chance to win an online gift certificate, three times as many upper-class players reported totals higher than 12—even though, unbeknownst to them, the game was rigged so that 12 was the highest possible score.

When participants were manipulated into thinking of themselves as belonging to a higher class than they did, the poorer ones, too, began to behave unethically. In one test, subjects were asked to compare themselves with people at the top or the bottom of the social scale (Donald Trump or a homeless person, for example.) They were then permitted to take candies from a jar ostensibly meant for a group of children in a nearby lab. Subjects whose role-playing raised their status in their own eyes took twice as many candies as those who compared themselves to "The Donald," the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In another test, participants were asked to list several benefits of greed; they were given the example that greed can help further one's professional goals, then asked to come up with three additional benefits. Again, lower-class subjects whose attitudes toward greed had been nudged in this way became just as likely as their wealthier counterparts to sympathize with dishonest behavior (taking home office supplies, laying off employees while increasing their own bonuses, overcharging customers to drive up profits).

In a final experiment, the researchers took their hypothesis to the streets. At a busy intersection in the San Francisco Bay area, the team stationed "pedestrians" at crosswalks, with instructions to approach the crossing at a point when oncoming drivers would have a chance to stop. Observers coded the status of the cars' drivers based on the vehicles' age, make, and appearance. Drivers of shiny, expensive cars were three times more likely than those of old clunkers to plow through a crosswalk, failing to yield to pedestrians as required by California state law. High-status motorists were also four times more likely than those with cheaper, older cars to cut off other drivers at a four-way stop.

In an interesting twist, about one-third of Prius drivers broke crosswalk laws, putting the hybrid among the highest "unethical driving" car brands. "This is a good demonstration of the 'moral licensing' phenomenon, in which hybrid-car drivers who believe they're saving the Earth may feel entitled to behave unethically in other ways," Piff says. (The Prius results were observed but not analyzed for statistical significance in the study.)

Piff says the study may shed light on the hotly debated topic of income inequality. "Our findings suggest that if the pursuit of self-interest goes unchecked, it may result in a vicious cycle: self-interest leads people to behave unethically, which raises their status, which leads to more unethical behavior and inequality."

"It's a great study," says sociologist Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who has shown that those with power are more apt to condemn behavior that they themselves engage in. He says that the findings of Piff and colleagues may tap into something more fundamental than class—namely, power. "Unequal power can exist between social classes but also between an employee and boss, a wife and a husband, or two people in a negotiation."

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