Self-interest may trump ethics among society's elite, according to a study that found the so-called "upper class" more likely to cheat, take candy from kids, lie and break traffic laws.
The research, from the University of California, Berkeley, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A release from UC Berkeley categorized the findings as "greed is good." It is, the researchers noted, a "robust" determinant of whether behavior is ethical.
The research consisted of seven smaller studies that found upper-class individuals "behave more unethically" than lower-class people. The studies indicated that upper-class people were more apt to break traffic laws, take goods, show "unethical decision-making tendencies," lie in a negotiation, cheat to boost odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work than were lower-class individuals. Lead author Paul Piff, a doctoral student in psychology, said that "the increased unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals are driven, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed."
He added, "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 study was conducted by surveying ethical inclinations of more than 1,000 individuals from various economic backgrounds. The subjects not only filled out surveys on attitude about greed and "unprincipled" behavior, but also participated in tasks that measured actual unethical behavior.
Two studies showed upper-class motorists were more likely to cut off other drivers at a four-way stop and three times more likely to cut off pedestrians trying to enter a crosswalk. They determined "upper-class" in those studies by the type of car being driven, a methology that some criticized as a poor way to determine actual wealth.
In other studies, upper-class people proved more willing to replicate unscrupulous behavior, report higher scores than they actually had in a "fixed" dice-rolling game that had a $50 prize and were more tolerant of unethical behavior in the workplace.
That one had a twist: Participants in lower classes were just as likely to be willing to engage unethically "once they had been primed to see the benefits of greed," the researchers said.
"These findings have very clear implications for how increased wealth and status in society shape patterns of ethical behavior, and suggest that the different social values among the haves and the have-nots help drive these tendencies," said Piff.
He suggested that the poor may be less inclined to behave badly because they are more dependent on their communities.
“It’s not that the rich are innately bad, but as you rise in the ranks — whether as a person or a nonhuman primate — you become more self-focused,” Piff told Bloomberg's Elizabeth Lopatto. “You can change that by reminding upper-class people of the needs of others. That may not be their default, but having them do it is sufficient to increase their patterns of altruistic behavior.”
He said he intends to study whether that works.
The financially better off frequently have an economics class in their background. One suggestion raised by the researchers is pairing an ethics class with economics classes, to see if that makes any difference, the Bloomberg article said.
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