Higher social status is correlated with lower ethical behavior

February 29, 2012

It may be true that cheats don’t prosper, but it seems equally true that those who are prosperous cheat. And this is not just an impression: there is now scientific evidence to back it up. The Los Angeles Times has a very interesting article on recent researching demonstrating that people with a high social status are less ethical than others in their daily behavior. According to the article, 

People driving expensive cars were more likely than other motorists to cut off drivers and pedestrians at a four-way-stop intersection in the San Francisco Bay Area, UC Berkeley researchers observed. Those findings led to a series of experiments that revealed that people of higher socioeconomic status were also more likely to cheat to win a prize, take candy from children, and say they would pocket extra change handed to them in error rather than give it back.

These and other observations on the lower ethical behavior of the rich are backed up by a theory, which is as follows:   

Because rich people have more financial resources, they’re less dependent on social bonds for survival, the Berkeley researchers reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As a result, their self-interest reigns and they have fewer qualms about breaking the rules.

Two observations on this theory are in order. First, the theory has nothing to do with genetics, which helps to explain why even relatively poor people can less their conscience when they suddenly become rich. Thus, the researchers cited in the LA Times article also found that “anyone’s ethical standards could be prone to slip if they suddenly won the lottery and joined the top 1%.”

The second observation is that this theory is consistent with other psychological research on the priming effects of money. Psychologists have found that even just by handling money (as opposed to acquiring money or winning it the lottery) people are less kind to strangers, more independent, and less likely to help those in need. The following video  presents an entertaining account of some of this research.  


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