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U.S. upper classes more likely to lie, cheat and think greed is good, study finds

The privileged class apparently believes Gordon Gekko’s declaration in the movie "Wall Street" that “greed ... is good.”

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.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/28/2012 - 10:20 am.

    Not surprising

    The study just puts numbers on what many of us already figured out. Simple powers of observation will show you that you’re more likely to be cut off by a Beemer than a Ford. There’s also no coincidence that there is a correlation between politicians generally being rich and also being colossal jerks. But you know there will be people who call the study hooey. After all, the rich are the most valuable people in our society to some people.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/28/2012 - 01:38 pm.

      Getting rich is taken by some to qualify them for high office

      I find it amazing that people who accumulate a certain degree of wealth think it has transformed them into fully qualified candidates for U.S. Senator, Governor, or Congress.

      John Edwards, Carly Fiorina, & Meg Whitman come to mind. There are a few local examples, as well, but I hesitate to name them. You know who you are !!

      My favorite is when a lawyer wins a big settlement and then offers himself for high office !!

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/28/2012 - 11:04 am.

    Those rich folks are so terrible

    I’m shocked and appalled, frankly, that the good people of Minnesota elected a trust fund baby to be their governor.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/28/2012 - 11:50 am.

      Some people are rich and NOT jerks

      Just like some people are jerks and not rich. And some people are jerks simply because they like to be jerks.

  3. Submitted by Jim Strand on 02/28/2012 - 01:27 pm.

    Chicken or Egg

    Are they greedier because they are upper class or have they achieved upper class because they are greedier? The article was framed in an inter-generational wealth context. The context would point to “they are greedier because they are upper class”.
    One of the studies having to do with cars brings back my frivolous thoughts on which suv has the right of way at an uncontrolled intersection. Does a large black domestic suv outrank a medium white Mercedes suv. etc.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/28/2012 - 01:31 pm.

    But if the driving study were done in Boston…

    …where I once lived, you’d find, I believe, that rudeness behind the wheel, cutting off any and all pedestrians and vehicles, and desperate speeding to the next stop sign, would cut across all classes in equal proportion. Just a guess, but I’d bet a buck on it.

    The driving study is the least convincing of those cited.

  5. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 02/28/2012 - 01:37 pm.

    The point of this sort of research, however, is that it permits generalizations beyond the individual–that’s why the researchers felt obliged to contradict their own conclusions by mentioning a couple of exceptions like Gates and Buffett. There are more “greedy” people among the wealthy, and these two men are notable for being exceptions to the now-proved rule.

    But, I have a problem with the researchers’ use of the term “greed” or “greedy” for what their experiments measure. To me, it looks like selfishness or self-centeredness, a complete absorption in the self and the accompanying inability to imagine the circumstances of another person. Greed has to do with accumulation of all goods, just for the having of, and is therefore connected to miserliness. Self-centeredness is not directly connected with the accumulation of goods or benefits, but the consideration first and foremost and to the exclusion of others, of one’s self.

    So we’re talking privilege and learned assumption that one is due that privilege over others. It’s about one’s sense of importance. Not simply having money. And, it certainly has nothing to do with status or prestige, and never with class, in both senses of the word.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 02/28/2012 - 01:47 pm.

    I Strongly Suspect that There is an Underlying Cause to This

    The experiences of growing up in particular kinds of dysfunctional families, communities and churches renders the youngsters raised in that environment to be far less capable of empathy and compassion than normal people are.

    These personality deficits rob those suffering from them of the ability to enter into healthy, rewarding relationships, and to take simple joy in the routine happenings of everyday life. Money becomes, for them, the universal patch they attempt to use to try to make up for the very persistent holes their personality deficits inevitably create in their lives.

    Of course that doesn’t work, but their only approach to their unhappiness is to feel victimized by the people around them for no loving them enough, when it is they, themselves, that are incapable of giving and receiving love. As “victims”, they feel completely justified in using whatever means necessary to accumulate more and more and more money in the mistaken belief that if they can gain enough, they will finally be truly happy (which they will not).

  7. Submitted by jody rooney on 02/28/2012 - 02:33 pm.

    No Dennis we just elect the ones that have demonstrated over and over again that they are committed to public service.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/28/2012 - 09:38 pm.

      So you’re voting for Romney then?

      According to the Huffington Post, Romney paid about 42% of his 2011 income in taxes and charities.

      The $3.2 million in federal taxes he paid would cover:
      – The monthly food stamp allowance for about 23,909 people.
      – The cost of educating 302 elementary and high school students.
      – The base salary (before bonuses and allowances) of 178 privates in the U.S. Army.
      – The federal contribution to the benefits of 636 Medicaid enrollees.

      In addition to his taxes, Romney has given around 16.4 percent of his income over the past two years to charity.

      The Obamas gave 1% of their income to charity.

  8. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 02/28/2012 - 03:08 pm.

    And of course our “trust fund” governor has proven to be one of those exceptions to this rule. He continually displays concern for the common good over taking care of the wealthy (as his fervent wish to raise taxes on millionaires attests).

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/28/2012 - 04:57 pm.

    and power corrupts

    Study verifying. And poor people give more money tpo charity, etc. Now a days however being financially well endowed is not beig seen as a dysfunction. Perhaps it is ! And how are non-sharers treated in elementary school ?

  10. Submitted by r batnes on 02/29/2012 - 05:34 pm.

    Submitted by Dennis Tester on February 28, 2012 – 9:38pm.

    The Obamas gave 1% of their income to charity.______________________________________________________Nice try, Dennis. As usual, you love to only give a portion of the story to suit your narrative.

  11. Submitted by Christine Nelson on 03/12/2012 - 11:00 am.

    They have received their reward

    Agree with Greg. Self-centeredness and greed are their own reward. Don’t expect anything more in your life. And if you’re ok with that, just try not to run over any pedestrians amidst your self-centered fog.

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