Rich people are more likely to behave badly, according to seven experiments that weighed the ethics of hundreds of people.
The “upper class,” as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to increase their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, researchers reported Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Taken together, the experiments suggest that at least some wealthier people “perceive greed as positive and beneficial,” probably as a result of education, personal independence and the resources they have to deal with potentially negative consequences, the authors wrote.
While the tests measured only “minor infractions,” that factor made the results, “even more surprising,” said Paul Piff, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a study author.
One experiment invited 195 adults recruited using Craigslist to play a game in which a computer “rolled dice” for a chance to win a $50 gift certificate. The numbers each participant rolled were the same; anyone self reporting a total higher than 12 was lying about their score.
Those in wealthier classes were found to be more likely to fib, Piff said. “A $50 prize is a measly sum to people who make $250,000 a year,” he said in a telephone interview. “So why are they more inclined to cheat? For a person with lower socioeconomic status, that $50 would get you more, and the risks are small.”
Poorer participants may be less likely to cheat because they must rely more on their community to get by, and thus are more likely adhere to community standards, Piff said. By comparison, “upper-class individuals are more self-focused, they privilege themselves over others, and they engage in self- interested patterns of behavior,” he said.
To be sure, Piff and his colleagues also said the associations they found were likely to have exceptions, pointing to Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., who has pledged the majority of his holdings to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other charities, and the whistle-blowing of Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, former officials of Worldcom Inc. and Enron Corp., respectively.
Less wealthy individuals also can behave badly, they wrote, noting the relationship between poverty and violent crime in previous research. They urged further study to determine the “boundaries” of bad behavior spurred by greed.