Greed Isn't Good: Wealth Can Make People Unethical

As an individual's wealth and status rise, so does their tendency to be unethical, concludes a new study of the relationship between socioeconomics and ethics.

The study included seven different experiments that spanned real-world and laboratory settings, from rude San Francisco drivers to test subjects given a chance to take candy from children.

"Occupying privileged positions in society has this natural psychological effect of insulating you from others," said psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley. "You're less likely to perceive the impact your behaviour has on others. As a result, at least in this paper, you're more likely to break the rules."

The findings, announced February 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, come at a moment when historical tensions over wealth and class have reached a fever pitch: Is greed good, and extreme wealth a sign of virtue? Does wealth corrupt, and should a society strive to be egalitarian in income as well as principles?

To these thorny social questions, Piff and colleagues apply the methodologies of science. In their first two experiments, they monitored traffic at a four-way intersection in San Francisco, noting the makes and models of automobiles -- a reliable indicator of socioeconomic status, or SES -- and whether their drivers cut off other vehicles or pedestrians. Rude behaviour rose with status, and high-SES drivers were roughly twice as inconsiderate as low-SES drivers.

In the next experiment, the researchers tested 105 Berkeley undergraduates on realistic ethical scenarios, such as what they'd do when given change for $20 after paying with a $10 bill. Lower-SES participants tended to be more honest.

The fourth experiment probed the underlying dynamics. Test-takers were asked to imagine themselves being very rich or poor, then given an opportunity to take candy from a jar that would next be delivered to children in another lab. Students who'd pretended to be rich took more candy, suggesting that "the experience of higher social class has a causal relationship to unethical decision-making and behaviour," wrote Piff's team.

If that test had a certain tongue-in-cheek humour, however, the next was more poignant: 108 adults recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk Labor service were asked play the role of managers negotiating with a hypothetical job applicant. The applicant wanted security, they were told, and would take less money in exchange for a two-year contract -- but, unbeknownst to applicants, the job would only last six months, and managers could get a bonus for negotiating a low salary.

On the X-axis, the vehicle status of cars from low (left) to high (right). On the Y-axis, the percentage of drivers who cut off pedestrians at a San Francisco crosswalk. Image: Piff et al./PNAS

The higher the manager's real-world income, and the more positively they described greed in a survey, the more likely they were to lie about the job's duration.

"Upper-SES people were way less likely to say they'd be honest, and that effect was driven by their more-favorable attitudes towards greed," said Piff. "We believe that competition, self-interest and prioritisation of one's own welfare explains their tendencies to withhold."

In the next experiment, 195 adults were recruited via a Craigslist advertisement. After being quizzed on their backgrounds, they were presented with what appeared to be a game of chance in which a computer program randomly rolled five dice. The higher the score, the greater their chance of winning a $50 gift certificate. Test-takers reported the scores themselves, but didn't know the program was rigged to always generate a score of 12. High-SES people cheated the most, routinely claiming scores of 15 or higher.

The final study tested how participants would respond to ethically challenging scenarios -- laying off employees while taking a higher personal bonus, or pulling a bait-and-switch on customers -- after being "primed" by telling neutral stories about their day, or talking about the benefits of greed.

After the neutral prime, upper-SES people were more likely to behave unethically, but a greed prime reversed the roles. "Upper- and lower-class individuals do not necessarily differ in terms of their capacity for unethical behaviour," wrote Piff's team, "but rather in terms of their default tendencies toward it."

"This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead," said evolutionary psychologist and consumer researcher Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the work. "I am especially impressed that the findings are consistent across seven different studies with varied methodologies. This work is not just good science, but it is shows deeper insight into the reasons why people lie, cheat, and steal."

According to Piff, unethical behaviour in the study was driven both by greed, which makes people less empathic, and the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society. It insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms.

"When pursuit of self-interest is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to socially pernicious outcomes," said Piff, who noted that the findings are not politically partisan. "The same rules apply to liberals and conservatives. We always control for political persuasion," he said.

Image: The Consumerist/Flickr

Citation: "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behaviour." By Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 109 No. 9, Feb. 28, 2012. has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.