Feb. 27, 2012 at 4:11 PM ET
While the poor might seem to have the most reason to cheat and steal, the rich are more likely to be dishonest, a new study shows.
In a series of experiments, University of California at Berkeley researchers showed again and again that upper-class individuals were more prone to unethical behavior than people from more deprived backgrounds, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Paul Piff, a doctoral candidate and the study's lead author, says he was surprised at how little incentive it took to get high-income people to cheat.
In one study, for example, people were asked to play a game of chance online. The 195 volunteers were told that a die would be rolled for them five times and that the participants with the highest scores from the five rolls would get more credits toward a drawing for a $50 Amazon.com certificate. The researchers also told the volunteers to keep track of their own scores.
But Piff and his colleagues had designed the game so all players would end up with a score of 12. As it turns out, “the upper socio-economic status people were way more likely to report a score above 12,” says Piff.
“It was fairly remarkable," he added. " You wouldn’t think that people reporting incomes of $150,000 per year would be so motivated to win this prize.”
In another study, the researchers asked 108 volunteers to fill out a survey online. Along with questions about their backgrounds, the volunteers were asked to imagine that they were employers who needed to hire someone at the lowest salary possible. In the hypothetical, they would get a bonus if they negotiated a low enough salary. The job was one that would last just six months.
Then they were asked what they would do if a candidate came in who was willing to work for less if he could be guaranteed the job would last two years. “Thus, if participants (acting as employers) were honest about the six-month limit of the job, chances are they wouldn’t be able to negotiate a very low salary,” Piff says.
In this scenario, the wealthier participants were more likely to act unethically to get a reward.
Piff suspects that a combination of factors, including greed and a heightened sense of entitlement, are what spur the wealthy to cheat.
He got the idea for the study watching people cut others off at a four-way intersection. His sense was that the most aggressive drivers were the ones with the most expensive cars. To test this, his first experiment tabulated the behavior of 274 drivers at that same intersection. Sure enough, drivers of expensive cars were the most likely to cut others off, he found.
In a second, related, experiment, Piff and his colleagues again watched drivers -- this time to see whether people with expensive vehicles were more likely to breeze past pedestrians in a crosswalk. In California, vehicles are supposed to yield when someone is in the crosswalk.
Once again, drivers of expensive cars were more likely to behave badly.
While there are examples of rich people who are especially generous -- think Warren Buffet and Bill Gates -- money seems to have a deleterious effect on ethics in most cases, Piff says.
The solution? He suggests mandatory ethics classes for people studying economics and business.