Cheat, lie, break the law? Chances are, you’re rich (Piff, Stancato, Côté, Mendoza-Denton, Keltner) | The Globe and Mail

Seven studies show “upper class” are more likely to exhibit unethical behaviour.  Martin Mittelstaedt writes …

…. a team of professors from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the University of California, Berkeley, who ran a battery of tests involving more than 1,000 people, seeking to answer the question of whether being rich or poor influenced ethical behaviour.

In results from seven separate studies, they found a consistent tendency among those they termed “upper-class” to be more likely to break the law while driving, take valued goods from others, lie in negotiations, cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize and endorse unethical behaviour at work.

The reason for the ethical difference was simple, according to the paper being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a leading U.S. science journal. Wealthier people are more likely to have an attitude that greed is good.

Surfaced as “Cheat, lie, break the law? Chances are, you’re rich” | Martin Mittelstaedt | Feb. 27, 2012 | The Globe and Mail at

Cheat, lie, break the law? Chances are, you’re rich - The Globe and Mail

The 7 experiments are better described in another article by Brandon Keim:

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 behavior 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 behavior,” wrote Piff’s team.

If that test had a certain tongue-in-cheek humor, 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.

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 prioritization 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 behavior,” 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.”

Details as “Greed Isn’t Good: Wealth Could Make People Unethical” | Brandon Keim | Feb. 27, 2012 | Wired Science at

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

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

Abstract for full research article as “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” | Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner | Jan. 26, 2012 | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, at