Are Rich People Unethical?

Oct 23, 2013 by

BMW taking 2 parking spaces

That’s a BMW SUV on the left.

I ran across an article titled “How Wealth Reduces Compassion” at Scientific American online that you might already have heard about since S.A. published the piece about 18 months ago. (But it was news to me!) Interesting stuff, I thought.

Studies Done by Berkeley Psychologists

Ph.D. candidate Paul Piff and psychology professor Dacher Keltner of the University of California-Berkeley studied the relationship between social class and ethical behavior. The researchers defined social class in terms of wealth, occupational prestige, and education. Here’s the abstract from the study:


Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

Wow, that’s pretty rough!

Drivers of Luxury Cars More Likely to Cut You Off!

Here’s a simple study you could do yourself. Set up a comfy lawn chair in the shade next to a busy four-way stop intersection. Take along a lunch and a six-pack cooler (no reason you shouldn’t enjoy yourself). Then take note of the car’s make & model when drivers either

  • Jump ahead of others instead of waiting their turn to pass through the intersection
  • Ignore pedestrians navigating the intersection in a crosswalk

When the Berkeley researchers performed this study (probably without the six-pack), they found that male and female drivers of luxury cars were 1) more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting their turn, and 2) speed past a pedestrian in a crosswalk, even after making eye contact.

Social Class and Empathy

Cancer affects all social classes, one might expect more or less equally. But psychologist Piff and his colleagues found lower levels of empathy among those higher in the social class spectrum for victims of cancer.

Study participants were asked to watch two videos while having their heart rate monitored. Video #1 explained how to build a patio. Video #2 depicted children suffering from cancer. Heart rates slowed—an indicator of empathy—for video viewers with less income and less education while watching the cancer video. And post-video questioning of participants about how much compassion they felt while watching each video revealed a higher level of compassion among lower social class participants.

Also with regard to empathy and compassion, Professor Keltner and colleagues found that less affluent individuals were more likely to agree with statements like “I often notice people who need help,” and “It’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable.”

Ethics and Wealth

The researchers also found that wealthier participants cheated more. As they explained in the New York Times, “[a]fter five apparently random rolls of a computer die for a chance to win some cash, wealthier participants were more likely to report scores higher than 12—even though the game was rigged so that scores higher than 12 were impossible.

Piff and Keltner also say that in their studies “the wealthy were more likely to lie in negotiations and endorse unethical behavior at work, like deceiving clients for profit. Wealthier subjects even took more candy from a jar that was ostensibly for children.

The Researchers’ Conclusion

Here are Piff & Keltner’s conclusions, based on their studies of ethics and social class:

Our research pinpointed why wealth produces unethical conduct with such regularity: greed. Across studies, wealthier subjects expressed the conviction that greed is moral, echoing [Ivan] Boesky and [Gordon] Gekko and their intellectual companions (e.g., Ayn Rand). And it was their greed-is-good attitudes, we found, that gave rise to their unethical behavior. Wealth gives rise to a me-first mentality, and the ideology of unbridled self-interest serves as its lofty justification.

What Do You Think?

Does your experience seem to match the researchers’ observations? Or is this a case of pseudo-science cooked up to promote the ideology of a couple of left-wing Berkeley eggheads?

Image courtesy of AgentAkit on Flickr.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013-2018 Kurt Fischer
All original content on these pages is fingerprinted and certified by Digiprove