Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior
Is the likelihood that an individual will behave in an ethical manner dependent on how much he or she earns? Logic might suggest that poorer individuals’ economic situations could push them to break certain rules, but research indicates that the variable of economic status may not operate along such predictable lines.
A 2012 study from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” measured the relationship between an individual’s income bracket and the degree to which his or her behaviors and attitudes were unethical (illegal and/or immoral). Researchers conducted seven separate experiments, surveys and real-world observations to collect a variety of data on individuals’ attitudes toward greed, cheating and social class.
Key study findings include:
- “Upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic.” Drivers of “high status” cars cut off other vehicles nearly 30% of the time; “low-status” cars cut off other vehicles 7.7% of the time.
- Drivers of “low status” vehicles failed to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk up to 30% of the time, while 46% of “high status” vehicle drivers failed to yield, an increase of more than 50%.
- In another experiment, each participant completed a profile that captured self-perception of his or her class status and then was offered to take some pieces of candy; the participant was informed that the candy jar contents would also be shared with children participating in another study. Participants who reported a higher social status took on average almost twice as much candy as those who reported a lower status.
- Subsequent experiments showed that “social class negatively predicted probability of telling the truth … and positively predicted favorable attitudes towards greed…. Upper-class individuals are prone to deception in part because they view greed in a more positive light.”
The researchers cited possible structural and psychological factors that may shape these unethical behaviors. “The pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” they write. “Unethical behavior in the service of self-interest that enhances the individual’s wealth and rank may be a self-perpetuating dynamic that further exacerbates economic disparities in society.”
Tags: ethics, inequality
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the study titled “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior.”
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the study-related CNN.com article titled “Are Rich People More Unethical?”
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example, does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.