A new study says rich people are more likely to engage in unethical behaviour than their poorer counterparts — like cutting off motorists, lying in a negotiation and cheating to win a prize.
That’s the finding from researchers at the University of California and the University of Toronto, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
In two tests, researchers found that upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other cars and pedestrians at crosswalks. The researchers used age, vehicle make and appearance to assess drivers’ social class.
In another series of tests involving undergraduate students and adults, researchers found that those who considered themselves “upper class” were more likely to take valued items from others — including candy, even after they were told that whatever was left over would be given to children.
Others exhibited a greater willingness to lie during negotiations and cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.
The authors of the study said the differences in ethical behavior can be explained, at least in part, by the upper-class participants’ more favourable attitude toward greed.
“We found a trend that upper-class individuals — people that have the most money, the most income, the best education and the most prestigious job — have a tendency to engage in less ethical behaviour,” said Stephane Cote, associate professor of organisational behaviour and psychology at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“This doesn’t mean that every rich person will behave less ethically than any less-rich person… But we found a tendency. So if you look across people in a variety of settings, the higher-class people tend to engage in more unethical behaviour.”
But the authors also stressed that the trend is not universal, noting that there are many examples of ethical behaviour amongst more affluent people, such as philanthropic work. Cote cited examples of Bill Gates’ and George Soros’ philanthropy, or of corporate whistle-blowers who expose wrongdoing.
The authors also pointed out that unethical behavior is not absent from lower-class individuals, as has been demonstrated by numerous studies on the relationship between the concentration of poverty and violent crime.
“It’s important to not jump to conclusions and to not think of this as a 100-per-cent correlation. (It’s) like eating well and health,” he said, stressing that while there might be a link between ethics and wealth, like good eating habits and good health, it’s not automatic.
The findings in the tests conducted on undergraduates and adults were consistent across age, gender, ethnicity, religion and political orientation of the participants.