Academe has historically paid scant attention to the rich. Scholars have placed poor people under all sorts of microscopes. Rich people have largely gone unstudied. But that’s changing. Recent years have seen an explosion of academic interest in how affluence affects behavior.
This past August, for instance, a team of psychologists reported out research on how the life experiences of the wealthy may leave the rich less altruistic than people of more modest means.
Last week brought still another round of research on the rich, this time from scholars at the University of Toronto business school and the University of California at Berkeley. And this latest research seems to be attracting far more media attention than any other research on rich people’s behavior to date.
Why all the attention? The new research, as one British daily puts it, delivers “a withering verdict on the upper echelons of society.” The wealthiest among us, the research documents, will routinely lie, cheat, and not stop for pedestrians. They’ll even snatch candy away from little kids.
Wow. Wealthy people steal candy from children?
I suppose it's not so surprising. After all, South Carolina's corporate owners constantly demand and receive ever-larger corporate tax breaks, while schools go without repairs, without a full complement of necessary faculty, without classroom resources, without a lot of things.
The five investigators behind this new research didn’t set out to demonstrate how abominably people of means can behave. They set out to better “understand the origins of ethical behavior.”
To get at these origins, the researchers conducted seven studies, with two of these “field-based” and the rest conducted in lab settings.
In the field studies, the investigators concealed themselves at a San Francisco intersection and rated the affluence of motorists who passed through the intersection by car make, age, and appearance. They then contrasted the subsequent behavior of the motorists toward other drivers and pedestrians.
Drivers of high-status vehicles, the investigators found, cut off other drivers twice as often as the drivers of low-status cars. Half the drivers in the highest of the five car status levels the researchers tracked — the Mercedes level — didn’t yield for pedestrians. All of the drivers of cars in the lowest status cars did.
I bet we could run similar experiments in the student parking lots of public and private high schools!
Similar results showed up across a range of lab experiments that involved everything from dice games to candy jars. In all the studies, the most affluent behaved less ethically than the least affluent.
What’s going on here? The five researchers caution against any use of their data to predict how any one wealthy individual will behave.
“We’re definitely not suggesting that any upper-class person,” notes Stéphane Côté, an expert in organizational behavior at the University of Toronto business school, “is going to be less ethical than every lower-class person.”
No, and I'm glad the researchers clarified this point. Being wealthy doesn't mean you're less ethical. It may mean that you have greater freedom to impede, obstruct and punish the poor among us who wish to get a step ahead, perhaps.
But the researchers do believe that “the upper class may be more disposed to the unethical.” Both structural and psychological factors, they explain, contribute to this predisposition.
“If you occupy these higher echelons, you start to see yourself as more entitled and develop a heightened self-focus,” as researcher Paul Piff told an interviewer last week. “Your social environment is likely more buffered against the impact of your actions, and you might not perceive the risks of your behavior because you are better resourced, you have the money for lawyers and so on.”
In this situation, an affluent individual tends to not particularly care what happens to others. Society, on the other hand, definitely does need to care about the inequality that nurtures this “heightened self-focus.”
“Our findings,” sums up University of California psychologist Piff, “suggest that if the pursuit of self-interest goes unchecked, it may result in a vicious cycle: self-interest leads people to behave unethically, which raises their status, which leads to more unethical behavior and inequality.”
Harumph, harumph, harumph. Written by someone less fortunate and envious of the better class, most likely.