Self-Interest Spurs Society’s ‘Elite’ To Lie, Cheat, Study Finds

Wealthier People More Likely To Lie or Cheat
Patrons during the annual Klosters Snow Polo event in Switzerland on Jan. 20, 2012. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Are society’s most noble actors found within society’s nobility?

That question spurred Paul Piff, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, to explore whether higher social class is linked to higher ideals, he said in a telephone interview.

The answer Piff found after conducting seven different experiments is: no. The pursuit of self-interest is a “fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Piff and his colleagues wrote yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The “upper class,” as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to raise their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, the research found. The solution, Piff said, is to find a way to increase empathy among wealthier people.

“It’s not that the rich are innately bad, but as you rise in the ranks -- whether as a person or a nonhuman primate -- you become more self-focused,” Piff said. “You can change that by reminding upper-class people of the needs of others. That may not be their default, but have them do it is sufficient to increase their patterns of altruistic behavior.”

That theory will be the basis of his next study. Piff is curious to know how to change patterns of greed and selfishness when they emerge.

Ethics Courses

Previous research has shown that students who take economics classes are more likely to describe greed as good. Pairing ethics courses with economics may be beneficial, Piff said.

“It might be as simple as not only stressing individual performance, but the value of cooperation and improving the welfare of others,” he said. “That goes a long way.”

In the research reported yesterday, the experiments suggest at least some wealthier people “perceive greed as positive and beneficial,” probably as a result of education, personal independence and the resources they have to deal with potentially negative consequences, the authors wrote.

While the tests measured only “minor infractions,” that factor made the results “even more surprising,” Piff said.

One experiment invited 195 adults recruited using Craigslist to play a game in which a computer “rolled dice” for a chance to win a $50 gift certificate. The numbers each participant rolled were the same; anyone self-reporting a total higher than 12 was lying about their score. Those in wealthier groups were found to be more likely to fib, Piff said.

Risks of Cheating

“A $50 prize is a measly sum to people who make $250,000 a year,” he said in a telephone interview. “So why are they more inclined to cheat? For a person with lower socioeconomic status, that $50 would get you more, and the risks are small.”

Poorer participants may be less likely to cheat because they must rely more on their community to get by, and thus are more likely adhere to community standards, Piff said. By comparison, “upper-class individuals are more self-focused, they privilege themselves over others, and they engage in self-interested patterns of behavior,” he said.

In the traffic tests, about one-third of drivers in higher-status cars cut off other drivers at an intersection watched by the researchers, about double those in less costly cars. Additionally, almost half of the more expensive cars didn’t yield when a pedestrian entered the crosswalk while all of the lowest-status cars let the pedestrian cross. These experiments involved 426 vehicles.

Employment Test

Another test asked 108 adults found through Inc.’s work-recruiting website Mechanical Turk to assume the role of an employer negotiating a salary with someone seeking long-term employment. They were told several things about the job, including that it would soon be eliminated. Upper-class individuals were more likely not to mention to the job-seeker the temporary nature of the position, the research found.

“Support for free-market capitalism will collapse if those who do well don’t do good,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Rapacious, intolerant, nonempathetic capitalism that says lie, cheat, steal, it’s only the bottom line that matters -- aside from being morally repugnant, it’s got a dim future.”

Study Design Criticized

Meredith McGinley, an assistant professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh who wasn’t involved in the study, was critical of how some of the experiments were designed.

The car test complicates the results because having a flashy car doesn’t necessarily mean the driver is wealthy, said McGinley, who studies positive social behavior. In the experiment involving candy, the participants were told they could have it even though children were waiting for it. They may have felt they were doing nothing wrong, she said.

In the candy test, 129 undergraduates were manipulated to view themselves as wealthy or poor. They were then presented with a jar of individually wrapped candy, which researchers said would go to children in a nearby lab, though the participants could take some if they wanted. The undergraduates believing themselves to be upper income took more than those believing themselves to be low income, the study found.

Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, wasn’t surprised by the results, he said.

Greed ‘on Upswing’

“Greed has been on the upswing for 20 years,” Gordon said in a telephone interview. “Wealth or power that comes with high socioeconomic status means you are indeed enabled to ignore other people and might think that rules that apply to other people don’t apply to you.”

Gordon, though, thinks the research has its limits. It isn’t as much about wealth, he said, as it is about greed, a behavior that can be changed.

The very wealthy, who “tend to drive 8-year-old cars” and “don’t wear logos,” may offer a very different profile, he said, suggesting that the group targeted by Piff’s experiments with cars are more likely the “nouveau riche.”

To be sure, Piff and his colleagues said there are exceptions to the associations they found, pointing to Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., who has pledged the majority of his holdings to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other charities.

Less wealthy individuals also can behave badly, they wrote, noting the relationship between poverty and violent crime in previous research.

The study urged further research to determine the “boundaries” of bad behavior spurred by greed. Adam Smith, the 18th century author of “The Wealth of Nations,” may provide an example, as his first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” was about ethics.

“A long time ago, you couldn’t leave the university without having a course in ethics,” Caplan said. “One of the things college should do is provide you with the moral framework to operate in a capitalist society. When people ask about the value of philosophy, I point them there.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE