How good are the upper classes?

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.


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