Studies Link Wealth to Unethical Behavior

Studies 1 and 2. Our first two studies were naturalistic field studies, and examined whether upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals while driving. In study 1, we investigated whether upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection with stop signs on all sides. As vehicles are reliable indicators of a person's social rank and wealth (15), we used observers’ codes of vehicle status (make, age, and appearance) to index drivers’ social class. Observers stood near the intersection, coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn, a behavior that defies the California Vehicle Code. In the present study, 12.4% of drivers cut in front of other vehicles. A binary logistic regression indicated that upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver's perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic, b = 0.36, SE b = 0.18, P < 0.05.

In study 2, we tested whether upper-class drivers are more likely to cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk. An observer positioned him- or herself out of plain sight at a marked crosswalk, coded the status of a vehicle, and recorded whether the driver cut off a pedestrian (a confederate of the study) attempting to cross the intersection. Cutting off a pedestrian violates California Vehicle Code. In this study, 34.9% of drivers failed to yield to the pedestrian. A binary logistic regression with time of day, driver's perceived age and sex, and confederate sex entered as covariates indicated that upper-class drivers were significantly more likely to drive through the crosswalk without yielding to the waiting pedestrian, b = 0.39, SE b = 0.19, P < 0.05.

Study 3. Study 3 extended these findings by using a more direct measure of social class and assessing tendencies toward a variety of unethical decisions. Participants read eight different scenarios that implicated an actor in unrightfully taking or benefiting from something, and reported the likelihood that they would engage in the behavior described (16). Participants also reported their social class using the MacArthur scale of subjective SES (2). This measure parallels objective, resource-based measures of social class in its relationship to health (2), social cognition (4), and interpersonal behavior (7). As hypothesized, social class positively predicted unethical decision-making tendencies, even after controlling for ethnicity, sex, and age, b = 0.13, SE b = 0.06, t(103) = 2.05, P < 0.04. These results suggest that upper-class individuals are more likely to exhibit tendencies to act unethically compared with lower-class individuals. Study 4. Study 4 sought to provide experimental evidence that the experience of higher social class has a causal effect on unethical decision-making and behavior. We adopted a paradigm used in past research to activate higher or lower social-class mindsets and examine their effects on behavior (5, 7). Participants experienced either a low or high relative social-class rank by comparing themselves to people with the most (least) money, most (least) education, and most (least) respected jobs. Participants also rated their position in the socioeconomic hierarchy relative to people at the very top or bottom. This induction primes subjective perceptions of relatively high or low social-class rank. In this prior research, as expected, manipulations of perceived social-class rank influenced generosity (7) and the ability to identify others’ emotions (5). Participants completed a series of filler measures, which included the measure of unethical decision-making tendencies used in study 3 (16). Our main dependent variable was a behavioral measure of unethical tendencies. Specifically, at the end of the study, the experimenter presented participants with a jar of individually wrapped candies, ostensibly for children in a nearby laboratory, but informed them that they could take some if they wanted. This task was adapted from prior research on entitlement (17) and served as our measure of unethical behavior because taking candy would reduce the amount that would otherwise be given to children. Participants completed unrelated tasks and then reported the number of candies they had taken. The manipulation of social-class rank was successful: Participants in the upper-class rank condition (M = 6.96) reported a social-class rank significantly above participants in the lower-class rank condition (M = 6.00), t(127) = 3.51, P < 0.01, d = 0.62. Central to our hypothesis, participants in the upper-class rank condition took more candy that would otherwise go to children (M = 1.17) than did those in the lower-rank condition (M = 0.60), t(124) = 3.18, P < 0.01, d = 0.57. Furthermore, replicating the findings from study 3, those in the upper-rank condition also reported increased unethical decision-making tendencies (M = 4.29) than participants in the lower-class rank condition (M = 3.90), t(125) = 2.31, P < 0.03, d = 0.41. These results extend the findings of studies 1–3 by suggesting that the experience of higher social class has a causal relationship to unethical decision-making and behavior.

Study 5. Study 5 focused on positive attitudes toward greed as one mediating mechanism to explain why people from upper-class backgrounds behave in a more unethical fashion. Participants took part in a hypothetical negotiation, assuming the role of an employer tasked with negotiating a salary with a job candidate seeking long-term employment (14). Participants were given several pieces of information, including the fact that the job would soon be eliminated. Participants reported the percentage chance they would tell the job candidate the truth about job stability. Participants also reported their social class using the MacArthur scale (2) and completed a measure of the extent to which they believed it is justified and moral to be greedy (18).

We first tested the associations between social class, attitudes toward greed, and probability of telling the job candidate the truth, while accounting for participant age, sex, and ethnicity, as well as religiosity and political orientation, variables that can influence unethical behavior (19). Social class negatively predicted probability of telling the truth, b = −4.55, SE b = 1.90, t(103) = −2.39, P < 0.02, and positively predicted favorable attitudes toward greed, b = 0.16, SE b = 0.04, t(103) = 3.54, P < 0.01. In addition, favorable attitudes toward greed negatively predicted probability of telling the truth, b = −12.29, SE b = 3.93, t(100) = −3.12, P < 0.01. Testing our mediational model, when social class and attitudes toward greed were entered into a linear regression model predicting probability of telling the job candidate the truth, social class was no longer significant, b = −2.43, SE b = 1.87; t(101) = −1.30, P = 0.20, whereas attitudes toward greed were a significant predictor, b = −11.41, SE b = 3.81; t(101) = −3.00, P < 0.01. Using the bootstrapping method (with 10,000 iterations) recommended by Preacher and Hayes (20), we tested the significance of the indirect effect of social class on probability of telling the truth through attitudes toward greed. The 95% confidence interval for the indirect effect did not include zero (range: −3.7356 to −0.6405), suggesting that upper-class individuals are prone to deception in part because they view greed in a more positive light.


Results of seven studies find the wealthy are more likely to cheat and break the law.

Folksonomies: ethics wealth greed

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Regression analysis (0.947958): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Social class (0.903865): dbpedia | freebase
Sociology (0.830515): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Working class (0.692094): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Class consciousness (0.649400): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Relations of production (0.603037): dbpedia | freebase

 Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior
Periodicals>Journal Article:  Piff, Stancato, Côté, Mendoza-Denton, Keltner (January 26, 2012), Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Retrieved on 2013-07-21
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  • Folksonomies: wealth greed sociopathology