Rich people are more likely to behave unethically, study finds

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Wealthy individuals are more likely to engage in unethical behavior, a new study from UC Berkeley and University of Toronto researchers suggests.

The study – which was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal – found that those in higher social classes are more likely to engage in behaviors such as cheating, stealing and lying, due to being “less generous and altruistic” than their counterparts in lower social classes.

“These findings suggest that it is the people who occupy relatively high levels of wealth and rank in society who are more inclined to favor greed and behave unethically, whether that means breaking the law while driving, keeping extra change given to you at a coffee shop, lying to another person in the service of self-interest or even cheating in games,” said Paul Piff, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in psychology and lead author of the study, in an email.

In the first and second of seven separate studies conducted within the overarching study, researchers found that individuals in more expensive vehicles were more likely to cut off other drivers and pedestrians with right of way.

The rest of the studies required participants to report their socio-economic statuses and take surveys about various scenarios in which moral dilemmas appeared. Across the board, results showed that those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to take valued goods from others, lie in negotiations, cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work than their lower class counterparts.

The study suggests that the tendency for wealthy participants to engage in unethical behavior may stem from several factors. Members of the upper class have more privacy and independence in their professions and therefore associate less risk with unethical behavior than others may, according to the study. They also have more resources to handle any possible repercussions of such behavior, the study states.

The findings also suggest that the trend may exist because upper-class individuals view greed in a more positive light than others do.

After being encouraged to think of the positive aspects of greed in the final portion of the study, lower class participants were as likely as their wealthier counterparts to engage in unethical behavior.

“Upper-class individuals, who may be more likely to serve as leaders in their organizations, may … be more likely to have received economics-oriented training and to work in settings that hone self-interest,” the study states. “These factors may promote values among the upper class that justify and even moralize positive beliefs about greed.”

Piff conceded that there are exceptions to the findings, but maintains that the general trend – one that he says may have contributed to the country’s current economic turmoil – remains consistent.

“There are important exceptions to our findings — for instance, the notable philanthropy of super rich individuals like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — but in general, what we find in the lab resonates with patterns observed in timely political events, from scandalous acts of insider trading to the unethical acts committed by financiers in the times leading up to the recent financial meltdown,” Piff said in the email.