It’s true. BMW drivers really are ruder than toyota drivers, and the stereotypical miserly Scrooge isn’t as far from the truth as I’ve previously thought. Here’s the scoop: In March of this year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS (one of my very favorite phonetic acronyms), published a paper by Piff et. al entitled, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.” Now, for several years I’ve held to the axiom taught by one of my mentors, Dr. James Grubman, that “Money doesn’t change people. It just turns up the volume on what’s already there.” In other words, giving a million bucks to a selfish person will give them a million new ways to express their selfishness, while giving a million to a generous individual will magnify their ability to be generous. However, this study seemed to claim that people in higher social classes are naturally predisposed to impudence. I needed more information, so I hunted down a copy of the study and went over it with a critical eye.
The researchers performed seven studies to test their two hypotheses:
1) That higher socio-economic class would be found to correlate with more unethical behavior, and
2) That both higher social class and unethical behavior would correlate to positive views on greed.
The first two studies relied on the assumption that class could be reasonably estimated by the type of car a person drives. We all know that this is an imperfect measure of income, but the book “Luxury Fever” claims that cars are a reasonably good predictor of a person’s social position and wealth, so we’ll go along and see what they found…
In Study #1, they watched cars as they went through a 4-way intersection with stop signs at all four corners. They found that the cars in the luxury category were almost three times as likely to cut in line and move ahead without waiting their turn than all other car types.
In Study #2, they watched cars approaching a crosswalk and had a researcher try to cross the street. In this case, 45% of the luxury cars failed to stop for the pedestrian in the crosswalk, while more than 2/3 of the low-end cars stopped for the pedestrian.
Study #3 was a questionnaire where people read scenarios of unethical behavior and then were asked if they would be likely to engage in the behavior described. They also were asked questions about their socio-economic status (SES) according to the MacArthur scale of subjective SES. After statistically controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity, they found a higher rate of unethical behavior among the participants in the higher classes.
In Study #4 participants answered a bunch of filler questions, but the real test was how many pieces of candy they would take from a jar that they were told was meant for children participating in another study, but was not off-limits. As predicted, the people in the higher social classes took almost twice as much candy on average than their lower class counterparts. This is looking grim…taking candy from kids? Ouch.
Study #5 asked people to pretend they had to negotiate a salary with someone who was looking for long-term employment, and they were told that the job was going to be eliminated soon. They also filled out a questionnaire about their social class and their attitudes towards greed. As it turns out, regardless of current social class, those with positive attitudes toward greed were far less likely to tell the interviewee that the job would soon be cut.
Study #6 was a clever little trick. Subjects rolled a virtual six-sided die on a computer screen five times and were told to add up the total sum of all the rolls and give it to the researchers. They were told that those with high scores would receive a cash prize. The game was rigged, though. The dice were all programmed to sum to 12, so anyone reporting a score higher than 12 had cheated. Again, they found that people with positive attitudes toward greed cheated more frequently than those with negative perceptions of greed.
Study #7 was the one that says the most about greed, in my opinion. In this study, one group wrote down three things about their day, and the second group wrote down three benefits of greed. Then, they went through a test to measure the degree of unethical behavior that each individual found acceptable. In this case, the people who had been thinking about the positive aspects of greed ALL scored higher on the corruption scale than those who were not primed to think about greed. In fact, the lower class individuals that had been primed to think positively about greed were even more likely to be unethical than the wealthy people who were also primed in favor of greed.
What does it mean?
That depends on how you interpret it. On one hand, you could say that poorer people are more ethical, but study #7 blows that theory out of the water because when poor people were thinking about greed in a positive light, they out-performed the wealthy on the scale of unethical behavior.
Also, the correlation between higher social class and more unethical behavior doesn’t necessarily mean that wealth caused the person to become a cheeky misanthrope. Think about it. Somebody who favors greed and doesn’t care much for empathy will probably have fewer obstacles to becoming rich than a compassionate and generous person. Unscrupulous behavior may be a way to riches, not a result of them. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation if you point to social class.
However, if you look at attitudes toward greed, the message is clear: Proponents of the,”Greed is good,” philosophy of life are much more likely to act like total creeps.
Reference: Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Cote, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 109 (11), 4086-4091.