How good are the upper classes?

by on February 28, 2012 at 11:43 am in Economics | Permalink

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.

That is an abstract from Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stephane Coté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner.  There is a gated version of the paper here,  a Wired summary hereDozens of other sources covered the paper on-line but virtually all fell afoul of mood affiliation (something is wrong with the wealthy and here is a chance to disapprove of them), and a very large number made the subtle shift from “upper class” to “wealthy,” which of course is not the same.

We need to be cautious in our interpretation of these results.  Of the seven tests, two of them showed that people driving more expensive cars are more in a hurry and more likely to cut off others or not yield.  That’s not praiseworthy, but hardly a major moral condemnation.  Several of the tests involved people being asked to imagine they were high class, not actual “high class” people themselves.  To that extent we are testing the lower class view of the upper classes, noting that I would not use those terms as given.  One of the tests showed that social class did not matter once we adjust for a person’s attitude toward greed.   A positive attitude toward greed is positively correlated with social class, but it was also easy enough to “prime” the lower class individuals to feel the same way, suggesting that extreme context dependence will hold here.

Let’s view these results in light of the literature as a whole (I haven’t seen any journalistic source do this).  Very often in studies the highest trust, lowest corruption societies in the world are the relatively wealthy Nordic countries, not poor countries.  There is plenty of evidence that it is low and falling incomes — not wealth — which helped to explain voter support for fascism.  Consumers are eager to buy products from companies such as Apple, and they regard the wealth of the shareholders, and the high profit margins, as a sign they will get a high quality product, not a reason to fear a rip-off.  (Can you think of many cases where consumers deliberately seek out lower-class suppliers to minimize the chance of rip-off?)  The work of Garett Jones shows that high IQ predicts greater cooperativeness.

That all said, allow me to speculate.  If I were playing bridge, and my opponents were wealthy, I really would expect them to cheat more, say with regard to the exchange of illegal cues between partners.  For one thing cheating requires some smarts and for another it requires some confidence that it can lead to victory.  I expect Vlade Divac to flop more to draw a foul, or expect Kobe Bryant to work harder to manipulate a referee, than I would expect from a lower-status rookie player.

One simple hypothesis — which for now I will take as the default, when you sum up all the evidence — is that high-status people cheat more at games and less at many other activities, including those of real life.  (They are also in more of a hurry on the road.)  That’s very different than how this paper is being reported, and it’s also a much more interesting hypothesis.

Addendum: Kevin Drum comments.

Ted Craig February 28, 2012 at 11:48 am

Can you think of many cases where consumers deliberately seek out lower-class suppliers to minimize the chance of rip-off?

Wal-Mart?

Dan Abrams February 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Anytime someone shops at a small Ma&Pa store, or a local grocer, etc, instead of a big chain. Anytime someone buys the off-brand cereal, since the on-brand cereal spends so much on advertising, making it more expensive and therefore a ripoff.

Peter February 28, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I think higher prices and ripoffs need to be distinguished here. If Cheerios cost $1/box more than Value-Os, but the prices, brands, and ingredients are clearly indicated, then a consumer is not ripped off by picking either, unless the Value-Os or Cheerios are concealing some sort of defect. A rip-off necessarily involves a consumer being deceived at some point in the process.

That said, there are certainly cases where one avoids a larger/more established supplier for fear of a ripoff. See: having your car serviced by a dealership.

no need March 10, 2012 at 11:26 pm

All profit is a rip off. You just don’t get it because you’re so far gone.

Charging interest is a rip off. You just don’t get it because you’re so far gone.

You live in a nation of thieves and knaves.

mwilbert February 28, 2012 at 11:55 am

“and less at many other activities, including those of real life.”

What evidence are you “summing up” to come to this hypothesis?

celestus February 28, 2012 at 11:56 am

I don’t have too much of a problem with ambition -> cheating and ambition -> wealth.

Matt February 28, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Yeah this just seems obviously to be the most likely true explanation. Unless you hit the lotto or inherit your wealth, becoming wealthy requires serious ambition to be wealthy. Of course it’s not a given that being wealthy is said person’s dominating, most important goal, but a much higher percentage of the wealthy than the non-wealthy must be so, given the drive and work and sacrifices it generally takes to create ones own vast wealth. If being very wealthy is your dominant life goal, then other considerations, such as adhering to moral codes that demand things like fair play and consideration for others, necessarily fall by the wayside to one degree or another.

Lars February 28, 2012 at 11:58 am

This is embarassingly poorly argued. It’s nice when Cowen makes his role as wealth apologist obvious.

Lars February 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Or rather, upper-class apologist.

Cliff February 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Your comment is embarrassingly poorly argued

vanderleun February 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Well that’s easy for you to say since you have no shame.

Lars February 28, 2012 at 1:21 pm

It wasn’t argued; it was stated.

Lars February 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm

I mean, which of his arguments were convincing? His Apple example, conflating upper-class individuals with profitable companies and assuming people consider the profit margins when they buy products? His Scandinavian counter example, ignoring the distinction between class differences within a country and wealth differences between countries? His dismissal of the car experiment with language that should be familiar to anyone who has tried to minimize some action they know is wrong?
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are problems with this paper. He just doesn’t find any convincing ones, but that doesn’t stop him: he knows what his job is.

Andrew' February 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Okay, but look at the driving data. Throw that out because that’s just silly. Dumb rules are bent and rightly so. The rest are “laboratory studies.” WTF?

Attorney at Flaw February 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Not cutting people off is a “dumb rule”? Speed laws are “dumb rules”? Traffic laws don’t just protect those who don’t understand physics from themselves, they also protect other people from those who do not understand physics.

Dan February 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Yep. Traffic laws are dumb rules.

msgkings February 28, 2012 at 8:46 pm

All laws are ‘dumb rules’ to hardcore libertarians like Dan.

Hamm February 28, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Agreed. It’s pretty bad. You actually wonder if it’s satire. I mean, he played the “fascism” card. LOL.

Nick February 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Actually, the driving one doesn’t adjust to control for whether the vehicle was owned or rented & what the income level of the driver was, nor age range. This is purely a minor correlation blown out of proportion and stated as causation. ie, ‘because I’m upper class & in a fancy car I should get away with this minor crime that is predominantly victimless but does agitate others every now and then.’ And since we do know that people in lower incomes try to buy the things they think the income bracket above us has so we can identify with them, you’re more likely to see people driving more expensive cars from lower wealth than you’d guess.

Lars February 28, 2012 at 5:11 pm

That might be a decent point, but what Cowen actually said was that cutting people off and refusing to yield aren’t that bad (he generously allows that they aren’t actually praiseworthy), and rich people are in a hurry, so it’s ok.

Cliff February 28, 2012 at 9:17 pm

How about the fact that all the studies are extremely poor methodologically and conflict with other strong evidence?

andy February 29, 2012 at 1:11 am

What Tyler actually meant (likely) is not that not yielding when in hurry is not ‘that bad’, but rather if poor people were in hurry, they wouldn’t yield either. If you want to compare morality, you should compare what people do in same situation, not in a different one.
I don’t quite agree with Tyler’s explanation though; have you ever rode an ‘expensive’ car? I switched from a normal to ‘expensive’ and back to normal in a few days and I can tell you that being in a higher, bigger and stronger car makes you feel different and yield less; partly because it just feels more inconvenient to stop the bigger car, partly because you are looking from a higher place; partly because you feel that you are ‘more important’. And yielding to pedestrians ultimately is a ‘soft law’ where you always consider your inconvenience with the other’s, it’s not necesarilly immoral to consider yourself slightly more important.
The other factor is that certain types of aggressive people tend to buy ‘expensive’ cars, while non-aggressive people with same income won’t buy them. IMO this is a big factor; I don’t know personally of any upper-class person who would buy an Audi, yet people driving this type of car seem to behave quite aggressively.

mjw149 March 3, 2012 at 9:41 am

I expected something more reasonable, esp since I just finished ‘The Big Short’ and I’d have to hear a really good argument with lots of evidence that our economic system isn’t run by dumb crooks.

And let me put an economic/darwinian spin on it. Fewer people are dying, so we’re not culling dumb individuals or behavior the way we used to. You can all wax rhapsodic about competition in capitalism, but it’s been clear for some time that competition isn’t being maximized in this country, profits are, and there’s a huge difference. The Wall Street collapse clearly occurred due to perverse incentive and social relationships THAT HAVEN’T BEEN FIXED. Not only are the rich greedy and immoral (tax payers bailed them out while they whine about taxes) but they’re stupid, too. And Cowen making stupid, shallow, facile, kneejerk arguments above is a horrible, horrible sign. He once impressed with intelligence, now he’s a foodie dilletante apologizing for excess at the worst time possible. Or just honestly trying to deceive and not very good at it.

It’s especially clear that the rich are immoral when you view the Republican party blaming the deficit on someone else and then pitching their great tax cuts that create bigger deficits to help … the rich, aka, themselves. Selfishness and greed are wrong, even if you’re rigged the rules to allow it!

lemmy caution February 28, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Why is it a shock that greedy people are more likely to have money? The first thing that lower-class individuals are told when they win the lottery is don’t give money to your extended family and friends. This isn’t something that the upper class has to be told, but it is a break from normal human ethics over the vast majority of human’s time on earth.

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 12:00 pm

There is plenty of real-life evidence that those at the top who are caught of egregious crimes – much less low-level crimes – are never prosecuted.

Of all the white collar crime of the last decade in this country much of it high profile, how many people are behind bars? I can think of only a handful.

Dan in Euroland February 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Cite, evidence, or argument?

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 6:16 pm

We experienced a major financial calamity 4 short years ago.

How many people went to jail? Only Bernie Madoff (and he had little to do with the systemic fraud that nearly brought the global house of cards down) is behind bars.

Dick Fuld
Jimmy Cayne*
Angelo Mozilo
John Thain

None of these people deserve jail time? That tells you all you need to know about our legal system.

* Cayne clearly doesn’t need to cheat at bridge since he’s a world class player, but played pretty fast and loose with BSC house money.

Doc Merlin February 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm

They effectively are the government, and the government is never going to jail itself.

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 8:05 pm

I don’t understand your comment, unless you’re implying that they have bought themselves individual favors.

Lehman went belly up, there was/is no incentive for the government not to prosecute Dick Fuld who was one (major) cog in the corporate ‘personhood.’

msgkings February 28, 2012 at 8:49 pm

On what charges would you bring up Dick Fuld?

Miley Cyrax February 28, 2012 at 10:50 pm

@msgkings

Being a rich successful white man. Working in finance mitigates one’s Jewish-exemption.

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 11:08 pm

Cooking the books for starters.

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Your comments feed into the notion that sociopathic behavior is somehow not only acceptable but commendable. Do the world a favor and don’t reproduce.

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Google Repo 105.

gwern February 28, 2012 at 12:03 pm

> Dozens of other sources covered the paper on-line but virtually all fell afoul of mood affiliation (something is wrong with the wealthy and here is a chance to disapprove of them), and a very large number made the subtle shift from “upper class” to “wealthy,” which of course is not the same.

And in line with your Nordic example, I would point out that this is not testing wealth – for after all, all Americans are ‘wealthy’ in some historical comparison sense – but wealth *inequality*…

Un-egalitarian endowments lead to un-egaliatarian behavior? Doesn’t seem so unlikely.

H February 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm

cheater

Andrew' February 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Poor people, stop being chumps.

DWAnderson February 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm

I you look at the study you’ll see pretty low correlation coefficients in most of the experiments as well as only a handful of other variables used in the regressions. The results are somewhat interesting, but not enough to draw any conclusions– certainly not enough to justify the speculation that those quoted in the article say are what the study “shows.”

Rahul February 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm

What qualifies as an acceptable correlation coefficient in the social sciences? Just curious. I faintly recall studies with coefficients around 0.3 being touted as “fairly good correlations” in the past on MR

The Hon. Sen. Palpatine February 28, 2012 at 12:14 pm

This is a horrible study for so many reasons. I did a number of psychology studies in university a long time ago and I never had so many confounding variables in mine.

On Cars:
-Firstly, because of the runup in RE prices in SF over the last four decades, many people are “rich” but do not have the income to justify a nice car. Secondly, in the culture that is San Francisco, conspicuous consumption is frowned upon, especially by the “upper middle class.” Thirdly, people who buy high end cars might feel pervasive insecurity and act like dicks.

On Taking Candy:
-The participants understood the candy was waiting for children, but they could still have some. That’s not the same as Monty Burns stealing a lolipop from Maggie Simpson.

On Change
-Priming is an extremely powerful force in psychology. If the SES information is taken beforehand, people may be reminded of their status in society. For better or worse, people generally assume rich people are less likely to be honest than poor people (some people also assume poor people are good, honest victims of “the man”). I doubt one would find fewer tendencies toward this bias in college psychology students (the sample pool) than the general public.
If not: the positive selection model of college admissions (universities aren’t particularly diverse places economically) would pick only the best of the best of the poor. Like with other positive selection models (see: immigrants), we can generally infer a greater degree of a number of positive traits, such as willingness to follow the rules.

On internet recruiting: higher SES participants probably have higher levels of education and understand how to game studies. Also it’s faceless internet action and higher SES people probably have more experience with negotiation. Stronger results here.

And lastly, to paraphrase a poster from elsewhere, people born of rich families are much more likely to become hippie pseudo-scientists at Cal wherin they try and demonstrate their racial/class guilt. To quote another, if poor people are so good, we should put them all in the same complex, that way their stuff will be safe! I hear publication bias exists rather strongly in the social sciences.

JNieboer February 29, 2012 at 6:10 am

Couldn’t agree more. In the first two studies, an ‘observer’ coded drivers for ‘socioeconomic status’ according to make, age and appearance of their cars. Control for car size? Control for approach speed?

Second, the supposed empirical fact that car fanciness is a reliable indicator of socioeconomic status is based on a reference to a book called ‘Luxury fever’. But surely if there is ‘luxury fever’ or conspicuous consumption (everyone wants to drive a fancy car), it will be difficult to derive socioeconomic status from someone’s car?

Result: people in cars perceived as fancy break more traffic laws
Conclusion: upper class people behave more unethical

Tyler is not an apologist for anything or anybody. He is simply making the point that good science – unlike opinion, gut feelings or public sentiment – should not fall prey to fashionable generalisations (bankers/BMW drivers are evil, bankers/BMW drivers are rich -> rich people are evil).

ns February 28, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Defensive much? Falling incomes spurred fascism so people of high income shant be criticized? Say what? Do the studies speak of low class suppliers? High IQ predicts greater cooperativeness? Maybe it does but what does that have to do with ethics? Lots of high IQ people involved with Enron were cooperating with one another towards unethical ends.

The study isn’t presented as a window into people’s souls. It isn’t an argument against prosperity.

Upper class people can afford to be less considerate while driving, and may have a greater sense of invulnerability. Plus at least a few upper class people have an astonishing sense of personal entitlement, which throws their cohort average off. Speaking of entitlement, I found this quote to be the conservative economists’ equivalent of a Freudian slip: “For one thing cheating requires some smarts…” Well yes it does.

MD February 28, 2012 at 11:20 pm

“For one thing cheating requires some smarts…”

I took that to mean that because “smarts” is an explanatory variable both for one’s becoming wealthy and for successful cheating, one would expect a correlation between wealth and cheating, i.e. smarts is a confounding variable. Not sure if the study controlled for that, but it’s relevant. Not sure why you think it’s a tacit admission of some sort.

Ryan Cousineau February 28, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Without disputing your major theme, I’d suggest that driving in a “hurry” and cutting others off is more likely to lead to death and substantial property damage than most of the things that most people do in their day. It SHOULD be a major moral issue (says the guy who drives too fast and cuts people off…), though I acknowledge that we don’t generally regard it as such. (To the extent that bad driving is socially unacceptable, it’s DUI and “street racing” that (properly, given their relative danger) get the most stick, but any mishandling of a car sets the table for mayhem).

Damien February 28, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Well, it depends on he kind of cutting people off. I’d agree with Tyler that not yielding for a pedestrian is not a major issue. It’s pretty safe to say that pedestrians are not crazy and will not get run over just to make the point that cars should yield to them. Yes, it’s against the law (and might I add that I always stop for pedestrians), but in most places, there’s some kind of informal norm that letting pedestrians cross the street is a nice thing to do but that it’s no big deal if you don’t. I certainly don’t expect drivers to do that.

ricketson February 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Refusing to yield to pedestrians who have the right-of-way is akin to mugging.

The person with the car is using the implicit threat of violence to coerce the other person into forfeiting their rights (assuming that they are in a situation where they have the right of way, and not randomly j-walking).

People who drive everywhere probably don’t appreciate this. They don’t realize that some people (wealthy) mainly drive, while other people (not wealthy) rely on walking, and that by failing to yield they are establishing a relationship of dominance. The same goes for using their influence among town planners to create a car-friendly and walker-unfriendly cityscape.

ricketson February 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm
Eric February 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Eh. I never really understood the yield to pedestrian laws. As a frequent pedestrian I can confidently say that I’m quite happy to wait at a light because, I mean, it’s just a few seconds of my life. I have never felt “coerced” or “mugged” by impatient drivers; who am I to make them stop. It is literally just a seconds of my life to wait. My going takes minutes from them. I almost feel bad about, really.

I also think it’s curious that in our newly energy culture culture we still ask cars to come to a complete stop, then accelerate to save a pedestrian just a few moments of waiting. “But the pedestrian is actually saving energy!” Sure, but let’s not have the pedestrian force other cars to burn more of it.

I’d like to see a study measuring entitlement and anger levels of pedestrians. Short fuses, them.

Two recent examples:
1. Sun was in my eyes and I was driving slowly. It wasn’t a very populated area (neither walkers nor drivers) but there was a pedestrian at a crosswalk who I couldn’t see through the glare. Maybe because I was driving so slow he thought I was baiting him to cross but the guy went basaltic. Just nuts. To this day I don’t understand how someone could be wound so tight that waiting one second longer to cross would set them off like that.

2. Night driving, turning into a neighborhood off main road. It’s a very sharp turn into an area with no streetlights. I was not trucking but definitely turning faster than I should’ve. When my headlights landed on the side street I saw that a pedestrian was near the edge of the street and I slammed my brakes. He quickly scurried off of it, threw a can at my car and freaked out. His reaction has some merit; I was fairly close to hitting him. That said, when I look back on the scene I have ti ask: How can a walker who is standing in a pitch black street not see the one car turning and think “I better move.”?

That final point caps off my feelings of pedestrians vs cars. Walking is slow. It’s easy to stay safe, just pay a freaking ttenion. There are so many things going on for drivers. When towns go yield for pedestrian crazy I actually spend more time looking for people to stop for than the road and am a worse driver.

Lars February 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Good lord, you sound like a horrible driver. You nearly run two people down and instead of reevaluating your driving habits you decide the problem is that pedestrians aren’t jumpy enough?

ricketson February 28, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Note: I was only talking about situations when pedestrians have the right of way, not when they are crossing against the light, or other situations where they are ignoring reasonable traffic controls.

As for this: “Walking is slow. It’s easy to stay safe, just pay a freaking ttenion. There are so many things going on for drivers. When towns go yield for pedestrian crazy I actually spend more time looking for people to stop for than the road and am a worse driver.”

So, the driver has created a dangerous situation and other people (pedestrians) should go out of their ways to compensate for that danger? They have to wait “a second” (more like 10 or 20 seconds) for every car that they cross paths with, because the driver has created a dangerous situation in the name of getting somewhere quickly? They have to be constantly on guard even though their actions are, in themselves, completely safe?

There should be some slack for honest mistakes, but too often the drivers are being aggressive or reckless.

Eric February 28, 2012 at 9:34 pm

One more shot at this:
1. I walk frequently. I have been unyielded to many times. Never has it posed a significant problem to my safety or made me otherwise endure hardship.
2. As a tangental and whimsical side note: I have encountered angry pedestrians. Seen fights, even. I gave two examples. We should study pedestrian anger toward drivers (joke). I continue to attempt to yield to all pedestrians and after around 400,000 miles driven have yet to hit one. Fingers crossed as I clearly suck at this.
3. On high traffic roads crosswalks with lights are good things. Takes the guess workout of it. Saves time for all involved parties. When a town is yield to pedestrian crazy (as my town of Ashland, Oregon is) guessing whether every person standing on the side of the road are just standing or wanting to cross willynilly can be distracting. (FYI if you drive here, some are just standing and some want to cross. Stop for everyone, just in case.)

Eric February 28, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Edit: 300 thousand miles. Not 400.

ed February 28, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I can imagine a slightly different set of questions: (1) Are the rich or poor more likely to shoplift? (2) Are you more likely to be mugged in a rich neighborhood or a poor neighborhood? (3) Your car was stolen; guess the thief’s annual income?

I’d guess that there is not big moral distinction between rich and poor, but that there are substantially different incentives, yielding different ethical transgressions: a ticket for a moving violation is no big deal for someone rich, but is a bigger deal for someone poor; the risk of prison for armed robbery is not worth the small income for rich people, but is worth it for poor people; etc.

Schoolmaster February 28, 2012 at 12:23 pm

+1

The Hon. Sen. Palpatine February 28, 2012 at 12:27 pm

You had me at “incentives.”

NPW February 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm

(1) Are the rich or poor more likely to shoplift? How about are the rich or poor more likely to arrange a few trillion in taxpayer money to end up in their pocket?
(2) Are you more likely to be mugged in a rich neighborhood or a poor neighborhood? Are you more likely to be sued in a rich or a poor neighborhood?
(3) Your car was stolen; guess the thief’s annual income? Your retirement was stolen; guess the thief’s annual income?
How about this question. If someone is going to find a way to take your money without you realizing it, would it be a poor, middle class, or rich person?
For me it would most likely be a rich person finding a way to get me on the fine print or a mystery charge. Bank or cell phone company inserting a $3 charge that takes six months to correct, for example.
A poor person might steal my wallet, but that hasn’t happened in years. He might jack my car, but that hasn’t happened yet. He might break into my house, which again hasn’t happened.
The “rich” hit me up on something new at least monthly.

I can’t remember the last time a middle class person ripped me off. My completely unscientific assessment is that most intelligent people who have ethics are middle class.

The Hon. Sen. Palpatine February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm

“I can’t remember the last time a middle class person ripped me off”

Ever pay into Social Security?

The Hon. Sen. Palpatine February 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Or, by chance, are you a German taxpayer?

NPW February 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Governmental theft was/is done by elites, not the middle class.

The Hon. Sen. Palpatine February 28, 2012 at 1:30 pm

In the case of Greece, I’d say the corruption and inefficiency is at all levels.

anonymous February 29, 2012 at 4:41 am

There are no shortage of wasteful governmental spending geared toward the lower classes. Examples include public transit systems that pay their drivers several times the prevailing local wages for bus drivers, land use regulations that prevent the redevelopment of low end housing by their owners, and the Davis–Bacon Act.

ed February 28, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I’m not saying poor people are less moral. I’m just saying that rich and poor alike do various things we consider to be unethical. Which specific bad things they do varies depending on their abilities and incentives.

My point is that we can find either a positive or a negative correlation with wealth depending on the specific set of moral transgressions we look at.

If we really want to ask what is the correlation of “moral goodness” with wealth, we need to aggregate over all of these transgressions, and over all possible altruistic deeds (who gives more money to charity?), and we need to attach a moral cost and benefit to each one. I don’t think this can possibly be an objective question. I think the set of questions you ask to evaluate this correlation is a rorschach test of your own biases.

ricketson February 28, 2012 at 2:02 pm

good point

Urso February 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm

I think your examples are supporting his argument, not disproving it. The point is that rich people and poor people are bad differently.

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Yes, but his “differently” claim is that rich people behave badly at relatively meaningless pursuits (e.g. cheating while playing bridge, the horror) and thus their bad actions are less harmful to society.

Attorney at Flaw February 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Bridge is serious business, yo.

Urso February 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Maybe that’s what Cowen said, but it’s not what the guy you’re responding to said. Cowen I don’t agree with at all. It’s pure rationalization. DFW’s point is better — what these studies test is not morality, per se, but various iterations of morality. And these happen to be iterations of morality that richer people do worse on. If you look at other iterations of morality (like mugging or homicide) rich people don’t look so bad.

Trying to decide which side is “better” is meaningless. How many pension fund embezzlements equal to one aggravated rape?

Dr. Astic February 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm

That would depend on what branch of ethics. Under a, Kantian system, intent is everything. The spirit in which somebody does something is the most relevant factor of whether an action is ethical or not. If somebody does not do something because they don’t want to face the repercussions or because they don’t have the means to do so, they are acting unethically. Thus, from this perspective, wealth would make little difference in determining whether someone is ethical or not.

K February 28, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Game is part of life. Life is part of game. How can one distinguish between game and “real life activities”, i,e. when you are addicted with some internet affairs?

kebko February 28, 2012 at 12:23 pm

This reminds me of Robin Hanson’s discussions of how we accept poorly defined and poorly enforced rules because it allows powerful people to have more lattitude.

FXKLM February 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm

The car test struck me as particularly unpersuasive. I’m sure there is a strong correlation between wealth and owning an expensive car, but it’s far from a perfect proxy. It’s no surprise that someone driving an expensive, high-performance car will tend to be a more aggressive driver. It seems like a stretch to attribute that to the driver’s wealth.

NPW February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm

The greater one’s willingness to manipulate the system the more likely they are to be successful in that system.
Manipulating the system is also known as lying, cheating and stealing.
If A believes that:
“buyer beware” justifies lack of full disclosure,
taking whatever they can get is right,
not being convicted is the same as not doing anything wrong,
the legal system is the same as a justice system,
and B does not, then A will be more sucessful than B.

The statement that weathy people are in a hurry on the road isn’t wrong. Less wealthy people are also in a hurry. They however chose not to offload their problems on fellow motorist.

The Hon. Sen. Palpatine February 28, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I think your first premise doesn’t hold up well in a dynamic, iterated game. I will emphatically agree it does in a static, non-iterated game. Life is reasonably dynamic and quite iterated and people often dislike others’ cheating or cutting corners. Feel free to see the case of the Ford Pinto. Please don’t take this as a slight against disclosure or anti-fraud laws, it’s not, just against your premise of liars and manipulators are more successful on net.

NPW February 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm

“Life is reasonably dynamic and quite iterated and people often dislike others’ cheating or cutting corners.”
True, but just because someone dislikes someone else, does not mean they are in a position to do anything about it.

Cmot in Chicago February 28, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I’ve known 2 people who rose from humble origins to super-success. They are as different from each other as can be except in respect: they both are able to rationalize doing what’s best for them no matter what it costs others. They are above board with peers and those they need to do deals with, but have used abused and refused everyone else.

An Indian friend said something similar about India: I asked him to explain how his relatives can evict starving squatters with armed goons who beat them near to death, feeling nothing but contempt for them, and then go to an NGO meeting where they weep over the plight of the poor. He said if you are smart enough to get ahead, you’re smart enough to rationalize doing whatever it is you have to do to get there.

Cliff February 28, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Not all poor people are squatters, would be my “rationalization”.

Lars February 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Good to know you’ve chosen a rationalization for hiring goons to beat starving poor people. Where, pray tell, are the massive numbers of homeless people in India supposed to go so that they aren’t trespassing. There are people living in tents on highway medians, for fuck’s sake.

Cliff February 28, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Did they really hire goons to beat the people, or did they just hire people to kick them out? I am assuming the latter.

Rahul February 28, 2012 at 12:45 pm

>>>and a very large number made the subtle shift from “upper class” to “wealthy,” which of course is not the same.<<<

Is an expensive car a better indicator of wealth or class?

DK February 28, 2012 at 12:47 pm

“upper class” to “wealthy,” which of course is not the same.

How is that “of course”??? Is 100% overlap required?

David February 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm

I can imagine clients choosing a lower-status bank instead of going with a bulge-bracket bank like Goldman Sachs, precisely because they fear Goldman will rip them off. That said, I think these types of examples are few and far between. Generally, higher-status seems like a good marker for trustworthiness among corporations.

DR February 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm

“High IQ predicts greater cooperativeness”

So upper-class means smarter?

Bill February 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Some of these tests may have to do with differential risk tolerance of the wealthy.

If you have five million dollars, what’s the pain from a potential $5000 fine or a a tax audit.

I had a wealthy client who engaged in a battle with a neighbor over access to landlocked property worth less than the cost of the litigation.

At certain income or wealth levels, risk avoidance or even preferences get a bit skewed.

An Onyx Mousse February 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm

+1 to CMot in Chicago. The more I come into contact with high status individuals (and I include Tyler in this assessment) the more I see they are results oriented versus process oriented. This is by and large a good thing – it does no good as CEO of a large firm, or a leading litigator, to tell investors & clients “I tried hard but was unsuccesful.” They are paid to find a way to get results, and if the process can be gamed without getting caught or by staying “technically” within the rules, so be it. Think Kobe Bryant manipulating the ref – it’s not exactly against the rules and expected in a certain sense, while not being praiseworthy – it’s the tragedy of the regulatory commons. We saw it in the housing bubble / financial crisis to great extent. Very little of what was done to cause the crisis was illegal, all of it was rationalized selfishness to deliver short term gains by stretching the rules, but in the aggregate it meant disaster.

I am not saying that we would rather have process-oriented people in leading positions who slavishly stick to the letter and spirit of the rules – innovation and challenges to the status quo are often just what is needed. But we must be careful in distinguishing the useful from the pure and praiseworthy, and check the impulses of the “meritorious” elite leaders of the world to believe they are beyond reproach. It’s like our society has forgotten that hubris is a bad thing.

asdf February 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm

In a world where God is dead, hubris is the only logical outcome.

Andrew' February 28, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Think about the incentives of the system as opposed to the individuals. I have added to my “If I’m ever an advisor” to figure out some kind of counter-indicator to determine if someone is succeeding at the expense of “team-capital.” I’ve seen the guys who get results but when they leave you can’t tell they’ve been there except for the mess. But it’s the system that rewards that.

Eric February 28, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Incentives vs individuals. While I recognize the power of incentives, I think the individual must precede the incentive for the incentive to influence behavior. In your “team-capital” example the individual has to not care about tangible/sustainable results for them to ignore that outcome. Sure, the incentive can nudge them in one direction or another but it can’t completely rewrite the individual.

I’m buying a car now. Everyone who learns this launches into advice for not getting ripped off. Ask for this, ask for that. Research this, research that.

I ignore it all. Do I have a financial incentive to do all those things? Yes I sure do. Duh, But I value my generally unencumbered by penny pinching mind and don’t worry about maximizing all financial gains. It could be said that incentives titled towards mental freedom are far more powerful for me than financial ones.

I know what I want to spend, don’t want to buy a lemon, and if I pay more than I should’ve if I’d haggled as an informed consumer (and everyone thinks their informed) don’t care one bit.

Crazy, I know. Some of us spend more time pursuing happiness (which can include not destroying a company and doing a good job just for the sake of it) than pursuing money.

Eric February 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Their vs they’re mistake above. My entire comment is now worthless.

An Onyx Mousse February 28, 2012 at 7:56 pm

But this is the whole problem. We are discussing individuals who are expert at finding the leaks in the regulations / rules / procedures or whatever in order to maximize the desired result (profits, publications, etc.) You can’t design an incentive system so perfectly that someone else can’t find a way to game it – Tyler has talked about this exact problem with financial regulation. The ones who are bad at it get caught and punished. Some of these “gamers” find genuine overlooked insights or opportunities. But many of them maximize their personal gain while causing harm to others in some sense. This sort of outcome is expected in a democratic market economy, but it doesn’t mean we should be celebrating it. The Occupy movement, as annoying as they are/were, had a good (moral) point here.

Eric February 28, 2012 at 10:13 pm

True enough, especially in the financial sector. I just tire of the assumption that someone who is wealthy responds primarily to financial incentives. I know wealthy people: Some see stored value in everything and seek to maximize it, ends justify the means. Others are just wealthy being awesome at a high demand skills.

dearieme February 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm

“How good are the upper classes?” Not as delicious as the lower classes, who have more fat on them.

Meg February 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm

The nordic countries have low variation. I believe the literature supports the theory that it is not wealth but the gap between the wealthy and the average that is harmful: it encourages callousness, dehumanization and blame.

Cliff February 28, 2012 at 9:26 pm

What literature?

Greeneyeshade February 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Missing the obvious: upperclassmen have been imbibling the moral culture of the university longer than the newbies.

Greeneyeshade February 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Woops, totally misread that.. yowza.. in the words of Emily Latella, “Nevermind”.

bleh February 28, 2012 at 1:45 pm

What about the idea that the affluent are more likely or able to view choices as games? I don’t think its controversial to suggest they are more likely to face choices with the view to score abstract points in games of signalling, status, etc.

Just struck by this in light of Tyler’s comment about choices in “real life”. The relatively poor have to face a lot more choices which directly affect their basic standard of living, health, time available for children, etc.

Andrew' February 28, 2012 at 2:02 pm

And they are mostly playing the game against each other.

Then they get on the road and it’s hard to turn off. That’s a secondary point, but seriously, try this. Go go-kart riding on a track with a lot of other racers. Then watch yourself on the drive home.

Slocum February 28, 2012 at 1:45 pm

The correct interpretation of these results — and the reason that it works to ask people to imagine that they’re in a different class and get the class ‘appropriate’ behavior is this — humans are a status-based social animal and higher-status individuals are given more deference when it comes to following social rules than lower-status individuals. People behave accordingly. When their status permits them to get away with things, they tend to take advantage of it, and the kicker is that they don’t even notice they’re doing it — brain imaging studies have shown THEY DON’T EVEN FEEL BAD ABOUT IT. Their status apparently subconsciously suppresses the guilt/shame response. But it’s wrong to see this as a stable personality trait. People have varying levels of status depending on the domain, and you can expect them to behave according to the level of status they feel they’re operating with. A notable exception to this phenomenon is that when people are asked to imagine that they have a high-status position they don’t really deserve, then they behave more ethically.

The takeaways are 1) High-status people are not to be trusted–full stop. They need to be watched very carefully, and you need to be extremely suspicious of anybody in a position of power who feels entirely deserving of it, and 2) If you, yourself, are in a high-status situation, you’re going to need to make a conscious effort not to act like a jerk (and reminding yourself of the ways in which you are more lucky than good will probably help you in that regard).

Slocum February 28, 2012 at 2:15 pm

A bit of data:

The researchers found that subjects assigned leadership roles were buffered from the negative effects of lying. Across all measures, the high-power liars – the leaders -resembled truth-tellers, showing no evidence of cortisol reactivity (which signals stress), cognitive impairment or feeling bad. In contrast, low-power liars – the subordinates – showed the usual signs of stress and slower reaction times.

http://www4.gsb.columbia.edu/ideasatwork/feature/735403/Powerful+Lies

And here:

“Power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it”
http://www.economist.com/node/15328544?story_id=15328544

Urso February 28, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Right, maybe the takeaway is nothing more than “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Which should be no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention at any point in the past 10,000 years or so.

Laserlight February 28, 2012 at 5:15 pm

“All power corrupts, and absolute power…is pretty cool, actually.”

dirk February 28, 2012 at 1:59 pm

A Roissyian interpretation: alphas are rule-breakers and upper-class individuals are more likely to be alphas.

Andrew' February 28, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I don’t know about the Roissy thing, but from personal experience the alphas are the gray area testers while other people are more concerned about signaling that they stay way within the rails.

mark February 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm

I am very skeptical of this study. I suspect that the teachers began it with a bias to find the type of result they reported. I suspect that ths bias led to priming of enough of the subjects and the observers to elicit reports of results that confirmed the bias. The traffic component is especially ludicrous. I can’t believe any serious scientist would consider that an “experiment”.

Jay February 28, 2012 at 2:17 pm

So, let me get this straight: You’ve had almost nothing but uncritical coverage of the highly dubious Charles Murray book (including, inexplicably, linking it to that Justin Wolfers profile and your own parenting habits), which basically argues the poor are lazy, immoral, and stupid. But a much more thorough study like this, which implies that the rich are less moral than poorer individuals, you engage in a torturous logic to explain away the findings.

Class bias, much?

Andrew' February 28, 2012 at 2:45 pm

What about magnitudes? You are equating statistically significant results in 7 studies to something I can see out my window. Maybe the poor should break the bad rules (the ones rich people tell them to follow) and follow the good rules (the ones rich people actually follow).

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm

If I’ve learned anything in life it’s that white collar crime pays and petty larceny and drug possession are the things you need to be careful not to be caught doing.* Not just for legal reasons, but because society mostly ignores the former and morally condemns the latter for reasons that are not clear to me.

* Not that I’ve done any of the above.

Jay February 29, 2012 at 7:53 am

“I can see out my window”

Proof by anecdote is a very “scientific” way of going through life.

Kay February 29, 2012 at 9:27 am

It’s approximately as scientific as this:

“One simple hypothesis — which for now I will take as the default, when you sum up all the evidence — is that high-status people cheat more at games and less at many other activities, including those of real life.”

Claudia February 28, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Or maybe this paper provides some evidence for Murray’s scenario of a “hollow elite?” (His book was less hyperbolic and more thought provoking than I expected from reviews…even if the data works not perfect. ) Even if standard measures of marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity have held up better in the upper class than the lower class, he entertains the idea that elites may be less committed to the underlying values. Now this paper finds they find more self-serving, deceptive, rule-breaking by high class individuals. The results seem preliminary but intriguing especially when you put it in a bigger context of what it might mean for society. Too bad that discussion often gets bogged down in fiery rhetoric.

Alan February 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Tyler says “high-status people cheat … less at many other activities”

And who pays Tyler?

Cliff February 28, 2012 at 9:29 pm

The great people of the Commonwealth of Virginia?

The Other Jim February 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm

>”We need to be cautious in our interpretation of these results. ”

Yes. Because if the results been the opposite, this study would never, ever, ever, ever have seen the light of day.

mark February 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm

+1

JWatts February 28, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Indeed, this paper was written at Berkeley.

Jay February 29, 2012 at 7:54 am

That is one of the reasons I would not be surprised to find out that the results were just made up.

k February 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm

if they are asking low status people to pretend to be high status people

well that’s a questionable research strategy.

dunno about you, I hate the word status.

Slocum February 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm

if they are asking low status people to pretend to be high status people
well that’s a questionable research strategy.

But people aren’t inherently ‘low status’ or ‘high status’. These studies generally involve college students, and they are asked either to pretend to be in a position of leadership/authority OR the experimental procedure actually puts them in such a position (by making them the leader or a test group or by telling them, say, that they’ve tested extraordinarily high on some measure and will be working with somebody else who tested much lower). You might not expect you could produce status-contingent behavior by such manipulations, but you actually can do so.

And when you think about it, it makes sense that people adjust their behavior according to context — that, say, a middle-manager might behave differently in a meeting with only his underlings than with his superiors. In the first context, that middle manager is a high status person, feels it, and behaves accordingly (without really thinking about it). In the second context, the same person has low status, knows it, and behaves quite differently.

Rahul February 29, 2012 at 1:50 am

Is it so hard to do a study on “real” high and low class subjects? Why did they have to resort to role-play?

mark February 29, 2012 at 11:36 am

Because they wanted a certain result.

Tim February 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm

There is plenty of evidence that it is low and falling incomes — not wealth — which helped to explain voter support for fascism.

Hey! It doesn’t matter what the study suggests because you’re all secret Hitler-worshipping crypto-Nazis just waiting to come out! We can never be worse than you! So there!

Floccina February 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm

That is interesting because among the people I know the worst speeders are poor.

Floccina February 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I will add the privilege can breed contempt. One gets used to having things go their way and starts to expect it.

Robert February 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm

its been my experience that very small businesses, handymen, etc, are the biggest tax cheats around, giving discounts for cash transactions so the income can go unreported. The local bakery here frequently doesnt ring up cash sales.

dead serious February 28, 2012 at 4:34 pm
Damien February 29, 2012 at 6:21 am

“Barclays disclosed the two schemes to the tax authorities under rules which have been in place since 2004.”

No comparison here. Do you think the local bakery would tell the IRS that they are planning on only ringing up half the sales? Tax avoidance is not the same as tax evasion.

Maybe that could partly explain the results from the study? In my experience, small business owners and successful handymen are especially likely to buy luxury vehicles.

Kay February 29, 2012 at 9:32 am

“The banking code on taxation was first introduced by the Labour government in June 2009.

It followed reports that some big banks used large scale tax avoidance schemes involving complex transactions and financial instruments.

The code – which was supported by the incoming coalition government the following year – demands that banks which sign ensure that their tax and the tax obligations of their customers are observed.

It says they should not go out of their way to avoid tax for themselves or clients.

The 15 biggest banks operating in the UK have signed up.”

So basically they relied on schemes from 2004 that as of 2009 they had pledged not to use. Seems completely honorable.

Floccina February 28, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Perhaps we can make fewer of them by concentrating the wealth in a very hands.

Robert February 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm

There were government backed mortgages up to $417,000 available to anyone who was willing to misstate his income and sign a mortgage. And what happened? Millions of poor and lower-middle took these loans, defaulted, and ruined our economy. The lower class is a scourge.

Attorney at Flaw February 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm

What about those who made the loans? Down with the bourgeoisie!

Robert February 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm

maybe, but the truly innocent…those people who neithe borrowed or lent, get nothing but higher taxes and o.1% interest on their savings as a reward for being honest. (interest rates held artificially low to keep house prices propped up.)

Jeff February 28, 2012 at 5:12 pm

This “study” doesn’t seem to show anything other than that the authors set out to show something in which they are predisposed to believe. This is not a recipe for good research.

To name but one example, they focused on a single intersection in San Francisco. The most they can claim is that their study shows something about people in the Bay Area, and given the combination of relatively small numbers and low correlation even that is a stretch.

RM February 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Maybe, but we academics call it hypothesis testing and it is the only way we can publish. However–and I have not read the article– if you are right that the study or part of it was done at an intersection in San Francisco, the author should say that their findings are restricted to San Francisco.

Jay February 28, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Everyone who draws any conclusions solely on the abstract is a hack and a person devoid of intellect. If the Wired article is correct on the sample size we should all demand to see t-statistics. There is no way the differences are statistically significant.

A hack job out of Berkeley fed through the statistically illiterate journalist to please the zealots on the religious left. This stinks of the “survey” HuffPo put up not too long ago where the numbers were just “made up” to fit the author’s dogmatic beliefs.

Kay February 29, 2012 at 9:34 am

“…hack job out of Berkeley”

“…zealots on the religious left”

“…to fit the author’s dogmatic beliefs”

You’re a walking, talking caricature. Hope I’m not the first person to alert you to that fact, boss.

Alan February 28, 2012 at 7:15 pm

This paper suggests that people like me and my friends might not be very nice so the methodology must be wrong.

Cliff February 28, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Sometimes bias and reality coincide.

adam February 28, 2012 at 8:16 pm

What class are the cops?

Seth February 28, 2012 at 8:45 pm

The upper class also hates muggles.

My hypothesis: perhaps the upper class just take more risks.

Larry Rothfield February 28, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Fix the speeding laws so the penalty one pays is correlated to income (or some other measure of wealth). If the average schmoe pays $250 on an income of $50K, charge the schmuck speeder earning $500K a $2500 fine. That might slow the bastards down.

gregshap February 28, 2012 at 10:07 pm

From the wired article:
“195 adults were recruited via a Craigslist advertisement”
“108 adults recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk labor service”

I wouldn’t draw any conclusions about the ethics of the “elite classes” from this. How many Investment Bankers do you know who spend their time cruising craigslist for $10 per hour gigs?

I’m sure a lot of wealthy people got that way through greed, but I’m not convinced that they really studied many of those people. Some of the Berkeley students might have been the KIDS of wealthy people, but thats really a different story.

tt February 28, 2012 at 11:02 pm

my response to almost every post you make will now be
“Christ , what an asshole”

http://boingboing.net/2010/03/30/recaptioning-new-yor.html

GiT February 29, 2012 at 1:53 am

On this question, I defer to divine revelation:

“And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Urso February 29, 2012 at 10:37 am

There was a great Chevy Chase bit about that. Anyway I’m pretty sure the prosperity gospel folks consider that line passe.

GiT February 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm

If I were of the type which often deferred to divine revelation, I would say the prosperity gospel folks are a bunch of mammon worshiping heathen blasphemers, likely condemned to the fourth circle of hell.

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