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Wealthy people found more prone to unscrupulous behavior

Feb. 28, 2012
Courtesy of UC Berkeley
and World Science staff

Up­per-class folk have a high­er propens­ity for un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior, new re­search has found, and it’s largely be­cause they be­lieve—as did the mov­ie char­ac­ter Gor­don Gekko—that “greed is good.”

One part of the research sug­gested that if sti­mu­lated with thoughts about the ad­vant­ages of greed, lower-class people can be­come just as un­princi­pled as the wealthy.

In sev­en stud­ies, re­search­ers from the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley found that up­per-class par­ti­ci­pants were more likely to lie and cheat when gam­bling or ne­go­ti­at­ing; cut peo­ple off when driv­ing; and en­dorse un­eth­i­cal work­place be­hav­ior.  The studies were con­ducted on the uni­vers­ity cam­pus, in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Ar­ea and na­t­ion­wide.

“The in­creased un­eth­i­cal ten­den­cies of up­per-class in­di­vid­u­als are driv­en, in part, by their more fa­vor­a­ble at­ti­tudes to­ward greed,” said Paul Piff, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy at the uni­vers­ity and lead au­thor of a re­port on the find­ings pub­lished Mon­day in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­t­ional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences. “Our re­search – and that by oth­ers – helps shed light on the role of in­equal­ity in shap­ing pat­terns of eth­i­cal con­duct and self­ish be­hav­ior, and points to cer­tain ways in which these pat­terns might al­so be changed.”

Com­plaints about the sup­posed greed and un­scrup­u­lous­ness of the rich un­der­lie some recent socie­tal move­ments, such as the “Oc­cu­py Wall Street” protests. 

The re­search­ers sur­veyed the eth­i­cal ten­den­cies of more than 1,000 in­di­vid­u­als of lower-, middle- and up­per-class back­grounds. Vol­un­teers re­ported their so­cial class us­ing a ques­tion­naire and filled out sur­veys re­veal­ing their at­ti­tudes about un­prin­ci­pled be­hav­iors and greed. They al­so took part in tasks de­signed to meas­ure their ac­tu­al be­hav­ior.

In two field stud­ies on driv­ing be­hav­ior, up­per-class mo­torists were found to be four times more likely than the oth­er drivers to cut off oth­er ve­hi­cles at a busy four-way cross­ing and three times more likely to cut off a pe­des­tri­an wait­ing to en­ter a cross­walk. Anoth­er study found that up­per-class par­ti­ci­pants pre­sented with sce­nar­i­os of un­scru­pu­lous be­hav­ior were more likely than the people in the oth­er socio-economic clas­ses to re­port repli­cat­ing this type of be­hav­ior them­selves.

Par­ti­ci­pants in the fourth study were as­signed tasks in a lab­o­r­a­to­ry where a jar of can­dy, re­served for vis­it­ing chil­dren, was on hand, and were in­vit­ed to take a can­dy or two. Up­per-class par­ti­ci­pants helped them­selves to twice as much can­dy as did their coun­ter­parts in oth­er clas­ses.

In the fifth stu­dy, par­ti­ci­pants each were as­signed the role of an em­ploy­er ne­go­ti­at­ing a sal­a­ry with a job can­di­date seek­ing long-term em­ploy­ment. Among oth­er things, they were told that the job would soon be elim­i­nat­ed, and that they were free to con­vey that in­forma­t­ion to the can­di­date. Up­per-class par­ti­ci­pants were more likely to de­ceive job can­di­dates by with­hold­ing this in­forma­t­ion, the study found.

In the sixth stu­dy, par­ti­ci­pants played a com­pu­ter­ized di­ce game, with each play­er get­ting five rolls of the di­ce and then re­porting his or her scores. The play­er with the high­est score would re­ceive a cash prize. The play­ers didn’t know the game was rigged so that each play­er would re­ceive no more than 12 points for the five rolls. Up­per-class par­ti­ci­pants were more likely to re­port high­er scores than would be pos­si­ble, in­di­cat­ing they had cheated, ac­cord­ing to the stu­dy.

The last study found at­ti­tudes about greed to be the most sig­nif­i­cant pre­dic­tor of un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior. Par­ti­ci­pants were subtly sti­mu­lated to think about the ad­van­tages of greed and then pre­sented with bad be­hav­ior-in-the-work­place sce­nar­i­os, such as steal­ing cash, ac­cept­ing bribes and over­charg­ing cus­tomers. It turned out that even those par­ti­ci­pants not in the up­per class were just as likely to re­port a will­ing­ness to en­gage in un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior as the up­per-class co­hort once they had been primed to see the ben­e­fits of greed, re­search­ers said.

“These find­ings have very clear im­plica­t­ions for how in­creased wealth and sta­tus in so­ci­e­ty shapes pat­terns of eth­i­cal be­hav­ior, and sug­gest that the dif­fer­ent so­cial val­ues among the haves and the have-nots help drive these ten­den­cies,” Piff said.


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Upper-class folk have a higher propensity for unethical behavior, new research has found, and it’s largely because they believe—as did the movie character Gordon Gekko—that “greed is good.” In seven studies conducted on the University of California at Berkeley campus, in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationwide, researchers from the school consistently found that upper-class participants were more likely to lie and cheat when gambling or negotiating; cut people off when driving, and endorse unethical workplace behavior. “The increased unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals are driven, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed,” said Paul Piff, a doctoral student in psychology at the university and lead author of the paper published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “As these issues come to the fore, our research – and that by others – helps shed light on the role of inequality in shaping patterns of ethical conduct and selfish behavior, and points to certain ways in which these patterns might also be changed.” The researchers surveyed the ethical tendencies of more than 1,000 individuals of lower-, middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Volunteers reported their social class using a questionnaire and filled out surveys revealing their attitudes about unprincipled behaviors and greed. They also took part in tasks designed to measure their actual unethical behavior. In two field studies on driving behavior, upper-class motorists were found to be four times more likely than the other drivers to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way crossing and three times more likely to cut off a pedestrian waiting to enter a crosswalk. Another study found that upper-class participants presented with scenarios of unscrupulous behavior were more likely than the individuals in the other socio-economic classes to report replicating this type of behavior themselves. Participants in the fourth study were assigned tasks in a laboratory where a jar of candy, reserved for visiting children, was on hand, and were invited to take a candy or two. Upper-class participants helped themselves to twice as much candy as did their counterparts in other classes. In the fifth study, participants each were assigned the role of an employer negotiating a salary with a job candidate seeking long-term employment. Among other things, they were told that the job would soon be eliminated, and that they were free to convey that information to the candidate. Upper-class participants were more likely to deceive job candidates by withholding this information, the study found. In the sixth study, participants played a computerized dice game, with each player getting five rolls of the dice and then reporting his or her scores. The player with the highest score would receive a cash prize. The players did not know that the game was rigged so that each player would receive no more than 12 points for the five rolls. Upper-class participants were more likely to report higher scores than would be possible, indicating a higher rate of cheating, according to the study. The last study found attitudes about greed to be the most significant predictor of unethical behavior. Participants were primed to think about the advantages of greed and then presented with bad behavior-in-the-workplace scenarios, such as stealing cash, accepting bribes and overcharging customers. It turned out that even those participants not in the upper class were just as likely to report a willingness to engage in unethical behavior as the upper-class cohort once they had been primed to see the benefits of greed, researchers said. “These findings have very clear implications for how increased wealth and status in society shapes patterns of ethical behavior, and suggest that the different social values among the haves and the have-nots help drive these tendencies,” Piff said of the cumulative findings. Other coauthors of the study are UC Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Daniel Stancato, and Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto.