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.

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  • I don’t fully agree. Many drivers who cut others off are either distracted by cell phones, or other things in their cars. Aggressive drivers are very often in SUVs or large pickups, but many non-affluent people drive those. I think the less affluent probably can better empathize with people who are having a hard time. But I also think that as people age, even though they may be more affluent, they become more empathetic toward others, and are more likely to follow the golden rule. And yes, there are always exceptions.

    • In other words, the real world is complex! I agree–particularly since in experiments like watching cars at an intersection, the researchers did no interviewing of drivers to learn more about their circumstances, etc.

  • Don

    I don’t believe it. I still think there are people with good and bad qualities in every different race, religion or socioeconomic class. I refuse to believe wealthier people are more dishonest or unethical!

    • Your unquestionably right Don about no group having a monopoly on ethics. But what do you think accounts for the researchers’ results in, say, the dice experiment?

    • That’s a very close minded opinion. You need to separate what you read as ‘everyone who is wealthy must be like this because of this study’, and ‘statistics show this but it doesn’t mean every wealthy person is like this.’ There are likely to be several external and related factors that make this study accurate; studies like this can tell us more of psychology and society as a whole, and how to work on societal issues.

  • squirrelers

    At first glance, I wanted to say I disagreed with the conclusion.

    However, after thinking about examples of people I personally know, I think there could be something to it. Now, my sample size isn’t robust in terms of my own experience, but I can think of 2 people in particular I know who have taken divergent paths. I have known both for many years, and both started from humble beginnings (and were humble people). One has achieved very impressive financial success, and I notice him being slightly less understanding of other people’s difficulties. The other has had some financial and especially life struggles, and I find him to be able to empathize with others more. Perhaps it’s a matter of being able to walk in the other person’s shoes, so to speak.

    • Good point. The researchers clearly want to characterize the differences they saw between social classes as reflecting badly on the upper class (wealthy), and they claim to know why: greed. I’m no Berkeley professor, but that seems to me like a bit of a stretch from their observations.

  • Monasez (@Monasez)

    This is very interesting.I’ve been around some rich people and the do parallel along the lines of things in this article but I honestly think that they don’t do it intentionally.

    • We probably all know some people across social classes who are ethical and unethical. But these guys from Berekely are saying the wealthy are disproportionately unethical. I’ve observed firsthand the transformation of at least a couple of people I’ve known their entire lives into the sorts the researchers describe, as their wealth has grown. But this is just anecdotal, not science.

  • jefferson @seedebtrun

    This is interesting.. Statistics also show that children who are raised in rich families are more likely to be rich as adults.. Perhaps it has more to do with their sheltered childhoods, than anything else.

    • Yes, that’s partly why I struggle with studies like these. People are so diverse and complex! I don’t get how a clear cause and effect can be claimed. But I’m not a statistician (thankfully!) 🙂

  • I can believe it, but of course that’s not to say all wealthy people are that way. I bet it is statistically that many wealthier people were also raised wealthy, or have lived within a more comfortable lifestyle for so long that they become detached from the unfortunate pieces of life. You can say that people do get this way, but I don’t think it’s ‘immoral’ of them, I think it’s pure psychology that they get this way.

    I think even without wealth being the factor, if you’re taken to a certain lifestyle, you tend to be more empathetic within that realm and not in other realms. You are likely to be more empathetic to situations where you see it regularly, and are more likely to have experienced it or know of someone close to you that has had similar misfortune. If thats the case, then sure, wealth would create circumstances where you don’t see as much misfortune regularly. Take for example a typical poorer person in an established country — we’ve got everything compared to someone who doesn’t know where they’ll get their next meal, but we tend to be less empathetic toward others across the country or across the world because they’re not a part of our immediate world. Just about everyone cares mostly about themselves, relative to the culture and circle they live in — it really is human nature.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment Kayla. I’ll have to contemplate that for a while…

  • Wealth is so often passed down from generation to generation as are the behaviors that go with it (greed). I would like to see a study of people who are self made and wealthy and measure their results against folks who have inherited their wealth or were born into wealthy circumstances.

    • That would be fascinating. I bet there would be significant differences between the groups of wealthy you mention. I’d think the inherited wealth group would have a stronger sense of entitlement, but what do I know.

  • I do agree with the bulk of the conclusion. Maybe its because the rich feel they can get away with it or the halo that sorrounds them will blind us to their not so ethical acts. I think the less affluent show more compassion because they can identify with some of the situations personally…maybe something they have gone through or are going through. Knowing how hard it can be makes them all the more empathetic.
    However as with everything, we cannot lump everyone here, I believe there are decent, compassionate rich people as there are incompassionate less affluent ones.

    • Do you ever get the sense that the wealthy (in general) simply resent the middle and lower class and wish we’d all just get out of their way?

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