Members of America’s upper classes are more likely to engage in unethical behavior than those of its lower classes, according to a fascinating new study.
The study was specifically set up, say its authors, to answer the question, “Is society’s nobility in fact its most noble actors?”
And the answer was a resounding, “No.”
“Relative to lower-class individuals, individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically in both naturalistic and laboratory settings,” the study concluded.
The motivation for these unethical behaviors, the study also found, was often simple greed.
The privileged class apparently believes Gordon Gekko’s declaration in the movie “Wall Street” that “greed … is good.”
A series of experiments
Led by a team of social psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, and published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study is actually a series of seven experiments.
The first two were conducted in real-world settings. In the first experiment, teams of volunteer “coders” (who were not told about the purpose of the study) observed whether upper- or lower-class drivers (as determined by the make, age and appearance of their cars) were more likely to not wait their turn and thus cut off other drivers at a busy four-way-stop intersection in the San Francisco Bay area.
In the second experiment, similar observations were made about which social class of drivers was more likely to cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk.
Even when controlling for such things as time of day, the amount of traffic, and the perceived gender and age of the driver, the upper-class drivers were significantly more likely to defy California Vehicle Code and cut off other drivers and pedestrians. They were four times more likely to cut off other vehicles and three times more likely to cut off the pedestrians.
More accepting of greed
The other experiments were conducted in a laboratory. Some were done with UC Berkeley undergraduate volunteers, while others involved U.S. adults who were recruited through Craigslist or Amazon’s MTurk website and who participated online. In all, more than 1,000 individuals took part in the experiments. A variety of ethnic and racial groups were represented, although most participants identified themselves as white (European American).
These experiments consistently found that people who considered themselves upper class (as determined by a standardized questionnaire) were more likely than lower-class participants to make unethical choices, such as taking items intended for others (candy earmarked for children!), lying in a job negotiation, and cheating to increase their chances of winning a prize.
In one experiment, for example, participants played an online dice game in which they were told that the highest score from five dice rolls would receive a cash prize. They were also instructed to report their own scores. What they didn’t know was that the game was rigged, and no player could score more than 12 points. Upper-class participants were more likely to report that they had scored more than 12 points — in other words, they were more likely to cheat.
In another experiment, participants were given some tasks to complete and then briefly placed alone in a room with a jar of about 40 individually wrapped candies, which they were told were intended for a group of children who were involved in studies in another laboratory. The participants were invited to take a candy or two, if they wished. The implication, however, was that this would leave less candy for the children. Upper-class participants took twice as much candy as did those from the lower-class.
In a final experiment, half the participants were asked to think about the benefits of greed while the other half were asked to think about three activities they did during an average day. All participants were then asked questions designed to measure their willingness to engage in unethical behaviors in the workplace, such as stealing cash, receiving bribes, and overcharging customers. The experiment revealed that participants in all social classes were more willing to engage in unethical behavior after they had been primed to believe that “greed is good.”
This finding suggests, say the study’s authors, “that upper- and lower-class individuals do not necessarily differ in terms of their capacity for unethical behavior but rather in terms of their default tendences toward it.”
Exceptions to the rule
I was amused by how the study’s authors felt a need to point out that not all upper-class individuals are unethical. “There are notable cases of ethical action among upper-class individuals that greatly benefited the greater good,” the researchers note. “Examples include whistle-blowing by Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, former Vice Presidents at Worldcom and Enron, respectively, and the significant philanthropy displayed by such individuals as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.”
But these findings do back up earlier studies by other researchers that have found that individuals from upper-class backgrounds tend to be less generous and altruistic than those with fewer economic and social advantages.
“Relative to lower-class individuals, upper-class individuals have been shown to be less cognizant of others and worse at identifying the emotions that others feel,” the study’s authors point out. “Furthermore, upper-class individuals are more disengaged during social interactions — for example, checking their cell phones or doodling on a questionnaire — compared with their lower-class peers.”
“Upper-class households also tend to donate a smaller proportion of their incomes to charity than do lower-class households,” they add. “These findings suggest that upper-class individuals are particularly likely to value their own welfare over the welfare of others and, thus, may hold more positive attitudes toward greed.”