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New Research Shows Just How Much More Likely the Rich Are To Fight Dirty (Hint: A Lot)

Do you lie and cheat on a regular basis? Do you cut in front of pedestrians in traffic? Do you consider greed to be a virtuous quality? Do you think you're totally awesome and worthy? Scientifically speaking, you are more likely to be upper-class...

by Michael Byrne
Feb 27 2012, 8:00pm

Do you lie and cheat on a regular basis? Do you cut in front of pedestrians in traffic? Do you consider greed to be a virtuous quality? Do you think you’re totally awesome and worthy? Scientifically speaking, you are more likely to be upper-class, according to a just-out study in PNAS examining the relationship between socio-economic class and propensity to act unethically (and using those things as ethical markers). Seven studies, ranging from objective envrionmental observation to a dice pseudo-game to straight-up what would you do in this scenario? questions were performed, and every one of the studies found the same general result: being rich makes you kind of an asshole. Act surprised.

The results of these seven studies provide an answer to the question that initiated this investigation: Is society's nobility in fact its most noble actors? Relative to lower-class individuals, individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically in both naturalistic and laboratory settings. Our confidence in these findings is bolstered by their consistency across operationalizations of social class, including a material symbol of social class identity (one's vehicle), assessments of subjective SES, and a manipulation of relative social-class rank, results that to a psychological dimension to higher social class that gives rise to unethical action. Moreover, findings generalized across self-report and objective assessments of unethical behavior and in both university and nationwide samples

The studies are impressive in their scope and, obviously, come at a vital time. It’s no secret the myriad bad things a wealth gap causes and, particularly in the United States, that gap is only increasing. The rift between after-tax income between the top one-percent of Americans and most everyone else tripled between 1979 and 2007, with most of that windening occuring in the last ten years, according to the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities. The top one-percent boosted its income by almost 300-percent, the rest of us were in the lower double-digits, at best. What the study implies is a sort of feedback loop working in the gap’s favor: psychologically, the richer you get, the more interested in getting richer you are, altruism be damned. The research also shows that it’s relative. A person generally considered “poor,” once shifted into the position of being relatively wealthy (compared to someone more poor), quickly takes on unethical traits.

“[The study] could in part explain why inequality has been on the rise in the past 50 years and has sort of hit an all time high,” Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley, the study’s lead author, told me over the weekend. “When self-interest goes uncurbed, with reduced, say, governmental or policy control or with increased focus on self-interest as an important value, it’s going to keep crystallizing these differences. That’s an implication; we don’t have hard data.”

A couple of highlights of the studies: in one, 195 study participants were presented with a single side of a die on a computer screen, rolled over and over. And “participants were told that higher rolls would increase their chances of winning a cash prize and were asked to report their total score at the end of the game,” the study explains. Note that the prize was a $50 gift certificate, not like hundreds of dollars. The catch was that every person actually got the same result, 12. Those falling into the upper-class catagory were three times as likely to cheat and report a different number. Same with driving. Drivers, classified into economic strata by vehicle characteristics (an admittedly imperfect metric, yes), were observed at four-way stops. Upper-class drivers were three to four times as likely to illegally cut in front of other drivers or pedestrians.

In talking to Piff I made the observation that these results were pretty well, duh. But, in reply, he brings up the very good point that results going the other way might be just as seemingly obvious. Like, if you’re poor, you’re more likely to do whatever it takes to get ahead. Look at the prison population, for a terrible example (terrible because the U.S. justice system is generally fucked in favor of the wealthy). “You can imagine it going either way,” he says. “We have certain concepts about what gives rise to rule-breaking and norm violations. I was surprised by the consistency of the pattern in the opposite direction and that the effects were so strong, even in relatively minor experimental situations.”

“I think that this comes as a confluence,” Piff adds. “[There’s] a lot of different factors. There’s sociological work, for instance, that talks how parents of wealthy families are more likely to preach entitlement and talk about ‘you need to go get yours.’ These values are in many ways culturally ingrained among certain socioeconomic strata, whereas the lower classes teach more about the value of cooperation, community, and social life. We know from work on power and rank — not even on human social groups, but on our closest primate relatives — that as you rise in the ranks, you develop self-serving behavioral tendencies. You develop an increased sense of self, an increased sense of self-importance, an idea that you’re actually larger than other people, more deserving of things. That’s a thing that happens naturally as you rise in the ranks.”

If we’re up against both evolutionary/naturalistic predispositions and psychological behavior that reinforces/increases class inequality, is there any hope of salvation before the system breaks entirely? “The big question is, since they are the people that are most likely to be able to better serve others because of their increased resources — you want to be able to think about how to get the nobility to feel more obligated to the have-nots or the less well-off, more favorable to wealth redistribution,” Piff says. “What i’m looking at is, even psychologically, how do we through institutional or societal interventions alter these patterns. . .actually cause people in the upper-echelons of society to be more compassionate, more open to reform.” Godspeed, sir.


Reach this writer at, @everydayelk.