he rich are more likely to lie, cheat, drive rudely, support unethical behavior at work, and, yes, even "steal candy from a baby," according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Social psychologist Paul Piff and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley discovered a striking lack of ethics among the wealthy, concluding that people are more likely to steal out of a sense of entitlement than necessity. Here's what you should know:
How did the researchers make their case?
Piff and his team conducted several studies. Among them:
Researchers covertly observed cars at a four-way intersection in San Francisco, drawing conclusions about each driver's socioeconomic status based on the make and year of the car. People driving nicer, newer cars were twice as likely to illegally cut off other drivers and half as likely to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.
Study participants played an online dice game where they reported their own score, with $50 at stake. The game was fixed so the score was always 12, but wealthier players routinely claimed scores of 15 or higher.
In another test with "a certain tongue-in-cheek humor," says Brandon Keim at Wired, students were encouraged to imagine that they were either very rich or very poor, then given the chance to take candy from a jar destined for children in a neighboring lab. The "wealthy" participants took more candy.
In another study, participants were asked to play the role of a boss negotiating with a job seeker. The make-believe job applicant was willing to take less money in exchange for a two-year commitment. But the job had a six-month expiration date, and role-playing managers "could get a bonus for negotiating a low salary," Keim says. The result? Participants who were wealthy in real life were more likely to lie to a job applicant about the temporary nature of a position to get a higher bonus for themselves.
Why are wealthy people such jerks?
Because they can be, Piff says. Of course, not all wealthy people are selfish, but "if you occupy these higher echelons, you start to see yourself as more entitled." Plus, you have the resources to buffer yourself from the consequences of your actions. Lower-income people, on the other hand, are more dependent on their communities and thus abide by communal rules.
What else did researchers discover?
"In a crucial last experiment," says Ian Sample in Britain's The Guardian, researchers tried to teach poorer volunteers to believe that greed is good, then asked them how likely they were to perform a series of unethical acts. Less-affluent participants scored just as poorly as the wealthy respondents. So "upper- and lower-class individuals do not necessarily differ in terms of their capacity for unethical behavior," the researchers conclude, "but rather in terms of their default tendencies toward it."
Is there a way to make the 1 percent more honest?
Probably, says Piff. It may be as simple as "reminding upper-class people of the needs of others. That may not be their default, but having them do it is sufficient to increase their patterns of altruistic behavior." How about requiring college students to take ethics classes so they develop "the moral framework to operate in a capitalist society"? says University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan. It's as important for them as for us, since "support for free-market capitalism will collapse if those who do well don't do good."
Does everyone buy these results?
No. "These studies are interesting," says Jordan Wolf at Policy Mic, but they are also deeply flawed. Consider the rich candy thiefs. Researchers didn't run their experiment with real wealthy people — they used study participants "primed to think wealthy thoughts." That hardly offers a conclusive indictment of how actual rich people would act.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why China's Communist Party is headed for collapse
- Why Texas Republicans may want to cool the anti-Obama land-grab talk
- He said he was leaving. She ignored him.
- Why the poor's investment of choice is so alarming
- 31 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to make perfect fried rice in 6 easy steps
- Why atheism doesn't have the upper hand over religion
- Obama doesn't have a manhood problem — but conservatives certainly do
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why we need a maximum wage
Subscribe to the Week