Expert Commentary

Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior

2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on wealth levels and unethical behavior.

Unethical businessman (iStock)

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.”

Keywords: ethics, inequality