Are the wealthy less ethical?

Adriene Hill Feb 28, 2012

Adriene Hill: A new study finds that the wealthiest among us are often the least ethical.

Paul Piff is a Ph.D candidate at the psychology department at Berkeley. He did the research and joins us now. Good morning.

Paul Piff:Good morning.

Hill: Tell me a little bit about this research specifically — what did you find?

Piff: So we were interested in really looking at whether how much wealth and status you have in society affects whether or not you’re willing to bend the rules, maybe even sometimes break the rules in your own favor. And we found that really across various studies, wealthier and more high-status individuals were more inclined to behave unethically.

Hill: What types of behaviors did you find that higher status people were willing to engage in that maybe other people weren’t?

Piff: In a couple of studies that we ran in the real world, we looked at whether drivers of different cars were more or less inclined to cut off other vehicles at a four-way intersection, or to fail to yield for a pedestrian waiting to cross at a crosswalk. And we found that drivers with more expensive vehicles were more inclined — three to four times more likely — to break the law while driving.

Hill: That’s fascinating. Why do you think that is? Do you have any ideas what’s going on?

Piff: So I imagine that they’re going to be a confluence of factors, but specifically what we highlight in this work is that it’s the upper class individuals that are more likely to believe that the pursuit of self-interest and greed, if you will — that is, the prioritizing your own material interests over the welfare of others — is a good and moral thing. And it’s really as a result of these specific values that seem to be orientated around greed that upper class individuals in our studies tend to be more unethical.

Hill: Now I read that you also found somehow that wealthy people were more likely to steal candy from children. Is that right?

Piff: We did. We ran a study; in this case, we brought participants into the lab and temporarily induced them to experience sort of a higher or lower sense of social class by having them compare themselves to people at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, or compare themselves to people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. About 15 minutes after that kind of, what we social-psychologists call a priming task, we had them enter the hallway where the experimenter told them to hold a jar of candy that was reserved for children participating in a study in a nearby lab. And we just kept track of how much participants took. Participants who we made feel higher in social class rank actually took two times as much candy from children.

Hill: That’s amazing.

Piff: I was so impressed by the, it really was a very sizable effect.

Hill: Paul Piff, thanks so much.

Piff: Thank you for having me on, it’s a pleasure.

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