Rich People: More Likely to Cheat?

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Are the rich really different from the rest of us? A new research paper suggests the answer is yes, and not in a good way. A new research paper suggests that the upper class are more likely to cheat and behave unethically than lower-class individuals. Could the "one percent" really be cutting more corners?

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Freshly published in PNAS this controversial new research paper is a conglomeration of seven different studies, all of which look at socioeconomic status, and how it correlates to the ethics of individuals.


The studies looked at cutting people off in traffic, cutting off pedestrians, unethical decision-making, taking valuables from others, lying in a negotiation, cheating to increase their chances of winning a prize and endorsing unethical behavior at work. They even took candy from children.

Because of the wide array of approaches taken by this paper, it's a hard piece to pick apart. The obvious tricky part is quantifying what "upper-class" means. The first two traffic related studies were based on external observations, which required observers to make the judgement about social status based on the make, model, and year of car — something regarded to be a relatively consisten indicator of status. The other tests were lab based, and relied on the MacArthur scale to judge class.


Yet it's hard to avoid the conclusion that across all these studies, the results were the same. Upper-class individuals were more likely to have a favorable attitude towards greed, lying, and breaking rules for their own gain. The authors offer up many possible theories:

Why are upper-class individuals more prone to unethical behavior, from violating traffic codes to taking public goods to lying? This finding is likely to be a multiply determined effect involving both structural and psychological factors. Upper-class individuals' relative independence from others and increased privacy in their professions may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts. The availability of resources to deal with the downstream costs of unethical behavior may increase the likelihood of such acts among the upper class. In addition, independent self-construals among the upper class may shape feelings of entitlement and inattention to the consequences of one's actions on others. A reduced concern for others' evaluations and increased goal-focus could further instigate unethical tendencies among upper-class individuals. Together, these factors may give rise to a set of culturally shared norms among upper- class individuals that facilitates unethical behavior.


This research backs up a lot of anecdotal evidence that I'm sure many have heard. Everything from rich people being poor tippers, to "I didn't get rich by writing a lot of checks." The question it raises in my mind is more about what's the cause and what's the effect. Some argue it's merely an indicator of greed — but beyond that, in the world of business a certain degree of sociopathy is rewarded. Being cutthroat and willing to ignore the misery of others can be lauded as a good thing, and one that reaps a greater reward.

So which is it: Are upper-class people more likely to be unethical? Or are unethical people more likely to be upper-class?