New research into ethics and class: the rich are more likely to cut you off while driving and take candy from children

Kelly Pope, Workers Party, Christchurch

With increasing industrial and social action against inequality taking place around the world, one outcome has been a shift in the focus of research towards the issues these movements and campaigns are highlighting. For example, in psychology and ethics there has been a recent emphasis on exploring the relationship between wealth distribution or class and a range of behaviours and dispositions that are considered pro-social and ethical, or anti-social and immoral.

Research that has recently featured in the media found that employers are four times as likely as the general population to have anti-social personality disorder, the condition experienced by people often referred to as psychopaths, which is characterised by impulsivity, manipulative behaviour and the inability to empathise with others. Looking more deeply into the relationship between socio-economic class and anti-social behaviour, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have carried out a series of studies, all of which have shown unethical behaviour to be more prevalent in the upper classes.

In six studies carried out on the Berkeley campus and nationwide, one thousand participants who identified as being from lower, middle and upper class backgrounds took part in surveys and tasks aimed to explore their ethical behaviour. In one survey, participants answered survey questions designed to measure their attitude towards unprincipled behaviours and greed. In another questionnaire, participants were given scenarios of unscrupulous behaviour and reported on how often they acted in these ways. Upper class participants noted their tendency to replicate these behaviours more often than people of the ‘middle’ and lower classes did.

In tests aimed to measure the actual (not self-reported) ethical behaviour of participants, two practical driving tasks were set. Compared to other drivers, results showed upper class participants to be four times more likely to cut other motorists off at a busy intersection and three times more likely to drive through a pedestrian crossing where people waited. In another study, participants were asked to role play an employment situation. Participants were asked to act the role of an employer in an interview situation and were given information about the job which they could share with the applicants, including the knowledge that the position would soon be made redundant. In their negotiations with candidates expressing a desire for stable, long term work, upper class participants were significantly less likely to disclose the temporary nature of the position than others, indicating an increased tendency to deceive people where they held the power in a relationship.

Two further studies supported these findings. In one computer task, participants took part in a gambling-type game where dice were rolled to receive a score. Researchers limited the game so that, in five rolls, no more than twelve points would be accumulated. When participants reported their scores, upper class participants tended to score higher than possible, indicating that they had either cheated or lied to obtain these results. In the other study, participants filled out a survey and were told that after the room was vacated it would be used by a group of children, and though a large jar of lollies in the room was for this group, participants would be welcome to take some candy as they left. In this study, upper class participants took twice as much of the children’s candy than other participants.

Discussing why upper class participants were more likely to act unethically, doctoral student and lead author of the research paper, Paul Piff explained, “The increased unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals are driven, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.” A seventh study by the Berkeley researchers illustrated this clearly. Participants given examples of unethical work-place behaviour such as stealing money, overcharging customers and accepting bribes were more likely to express a willingness to engage in these behaviours when primed to think about the advantages of greed regardless of their socio-economic class.

More reasons why our class should be in control.

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