Study begs question: do people get rich acting unethically or act unethically because they think they are privileged?

The news this week that a new study found that wealthier people were more likely to behave unethically set off a chicken-or-egg debate in my mind. 

In the study, Paul Piff, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, led a team of researchers at UC-Berkeley and the University of Toronto in a variety of behavioral experiments involving about 1,000 people.

They ran 7 experiments, all of which concluded that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals:

  • In two of the studies, upper-class individuals were more likely than lower-class individuals to break the law while driving.
  • In a laboratory study, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies.
  • Other lab studies showed upper class people more likely to take valued goods from others, to lie in a negotiation and to cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.
  • Yet another lab study showed that those in the upper class were more likely than the poor to endorse unethical behavior at work.

The researchers used a number of ways to evaluate socioeconomic status, such as education levels, annual income and the participants’ own perception of their social standing. But it didn’t matter what measure they used to sort participants into classes: those with higher status tended to behave in ways that served their own self-interest, even if it was unethical. My own view is that the reason it didn’t matter which criterion they measure: In the United States, virtually all social status reduces to money. The wealthier you are, the higher the social class, the higher the self-perception of class, the higher the annual income and the higher the level of education. 

By the way, neither the study nor anyone else is saying that all wealthy people are unethical, only that a larger percentage of wealthy people than poor people will do or consider doing things that most people consider to be unethical.

Now comes the chicken or egg: do people gain higher status primarily by engaging in unethical activities? Or does having a higher status make people think they are better than others and can play by their own rules?

Let’s start with the “chicken” speculation of the authors of the study, i.e., being rich changes how people behave:

  • The independence offered by financial security may foster a sense of entitlement and a lack of concern for others.
  • Affluent people may be more likely to get away with misbehavior because they have better paying jobs and better paying jobs are associated with less supervision.
  • The affluent may be more willing to take ethical risks because they have the resources at their disposal to address the inconvenience of getting caught.

We know that there is less social mobility in the United States than ever before in its history and less than any other industrialized country. What that means is that today’s upper class of wealth is primarily, but not exclusively, children of the upper class. That would certainly speak to the idea that the chicken came first, that is, that wealth created the pattern of bad behavior and not the other way around, at least in the current generation.

The researchers did find an “egg” explanation, which means that there may be something about cheating, lying and other unethical behavior that helps people get rich. The researchers found that unethical behavior was closely related to positive feelings about greed. Although the connection appeared to be strongest among high-status individuals, even lower-status individuals were more prone to ethical lapses if they felt that greed was good.

In other words, if you want money as an ends to itself and value the acquisition of wealth, you will be more likely to behave unethically.

Here comes the paradox: greed imbues our entire value system.  We equate the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of wealth. We measure success by wealth and what it buys: the amount of the sports or book contract, the size of the diamond or the house. We admire rich people and follow their doings. Much of the mass media revolves around celebrities, who for the most part are either rich or striving to be rich. Over the past 30 or so years, our leaders have created a system that provides no constraint on the accumulation of wealth, even if that means a decline in public services for everyone else, thus confirming private greed as the central economic value.

Everywhere we go, we are told to be greedy. Now comes this research that shows that greed causes people to turn their backs on our shared norms of social and economic interactions. In other words, the basic drive that propels our society erodes its foundation.

The right-wing likes to blame many groups for the decline of American civilization that they see: The real implication of this research is that it shows that it’s not the pointy-headed academics who have led us into the fix we’re in, nor the European-style socialists, nor those who offend archaic family values.

No, it’s greed pure and simple that is sinking the United States.

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