New study shows rich people lie, cheat and steal more than the rest of us

A new study, recently published, shows once again what many people have known for a long time. The rich are different from the rest of us: They lie, cheat and steal more. According to a study by Paul Piff, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, what most people suspected about the "one percent" is once again proved true. Piff conducted a study to explore whether higher social class is linked to higher morals. The result is a paper entitled "Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior," which was published Feb. 27, 2012, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale (a multi-millionaire banker) and Board member Penny Prtizker (a billionaire heiress who calls herself an "entrepreneur") were photographed above as they were voting to destroy the lives of more than 1,000 teachers and other workers at ten Chicago public schools being turned over to so-called 'turnaround' at the Board's February 22, 2012 meeting. In the foreground is Board General Counsel Patrick Rocks, whose multi-million dollar Law Department, with more than 40 lawyers, dedicates its work to defending all of the illegal acts voted on by the Board's millionaire and billionaire members on behalf of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. The abstract about the study reads: Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower- class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower- class individuals.

Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

The journal article can be found at

Discussion of the study reads:

The results of these seven studies provide an answer to the question that initiated this investigation: Is society’s nobility in fact its most noble actors? Relative to lower-class individuals, individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically in both naturalistic and laboratory settings. Our confidence in these findings is bolstered by their consistency across operationalizations of social class, including a material symbol of social class identity (one’s vehicle), assessments of subjective SES, and a manipulation of relative social-class rank, results that point to a psychological dimension to higher social class that gives rise to unethical action. Moreover, findings generalized across self-report and objective assessments of unethical behavior and in both university and nationwide samples.

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 (3) may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts (8). 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 (22) may shape feelings of entitlement and inattention to the consequences of one’s actions on others (23). A reduced concern for others’ evaluations (24) and increased goal-focus (25) 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.

In the present research we focused on a values account, documenting how upper-class individuals’ more favorable attitudes toward greed can help explain their propensity toward unethical behavior. Such attitudes among the upper class are likely to be

themselves multiply determined as well. Our prior work shows

that increased resources and reduced dependency on others

shape self-focused social-cognitive tendencies (3, 5–7), which

may give rise to social values that emphasize greed as positive.

Furthermore, economics education, with its focus on self-interest

maximization, may lead people to view greed as positive and

beneficial (26, 27). Upper-class individuals, who may be more

likely to serve as leaders in their organizations (2), may also be

more likely to have received economics-oriented training and to

work in settings that hone self-interest. These factors may pro-

mote values among the upper class that justify and even moralize

positive beliefs about greed.

The current findings should be interpreted within the confines

of certain caveats and with suggested directions for future re-

search. Importantly, there are likely to be exceptions to the trends

we document in the current investigation. There are notable cases

of ethical action among upper-class individuals that greatly

benefited the greater good. Examples include whistle-blowing by

Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, former Vice Presidents at

Worldcom and Enron, respectively, and the significant philan-

thropy displayed by such individuals as Bill Gates and Warren

Buffet. There are also likely to be instances of lower-class indi-

viduals exhibiting unethical tendencies, as research on the re-

lationship between concentrations of poverty and violent crime

indicates (28). These observations suggest that the association

between social class and unethicality is neither categorical nor

essential, and point to important boundary conditions to our

findings that should be examined in future investigations.

“From the top to the bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused,”

Durkheim famously wrote (29). Although greed may indeed be

a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue

that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata.

As our findings suggest, the pursuit of self-interest is a more fun-

damental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want

associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdo-

ing. Unethical behavior in the service of self-interest that enhances

the individual’s wealth and rank may be a self-perpetuating dy-

namic that further exacerbates economic disparities in society,

a fruitful topic for the future study of social class.


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