The selfish, cheating upper classes

When cycling around town, I’m often cut off by drivers who fail to indicate where they’re going. I’ve frequently noted to myself that these drivers are sat behind the wheel of flashy cars, which elicits thoughts along the lines of, “Look at you, with your expensive car and your money – I bet you think the world is some sort of personal playground in which you don’t have to give a second thought to anyone else!”.

Yes, I know it’s a bit of an over-reaction (it’s my version of road rage). And I’ve also wondered how much I’m simply succumbing to the famous confirmation bias: the tendency to pay attention to evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices, while ignoring instances that do not.

Now, however, it seems that this pattern of behaviour among the better off may not just be a figment of my imagination. A paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that people driving more expensive cars really do pay less regard to other drivers and pedestrians — and, more generally, that those of higher social rank are more likely to engage in a range of unethical behaviours.

In this study, as in many others, social class is defined in terms of the wealth, occupational prestige and education of an individual relative to others in society. Previous research has shown that the thinking and behaviour of the upper classes tends to be more self-focused, and they are worse at identifying the emotional states of others. Upper-class people have also been found to be less engaged with others during in social interactions, being more likely to check their phones while supposedly listening to other people. Money and social prestige seem to give rise to a ‘Me, me!’ mentality.

The new study started by exploring driving behaviour among different social classes in a natural setting. The researchers set up a discreet observation point at a four-way intersection in California, and recorded whether cars cut off other drivers — a selfish, not to mention illegal and dangerous, action. Each car that violated the driving code was classified according to its make, age, and general condition. (This isn’t a perfect measure of social class, but car quality has been shown to be a generally reliable indicator of social rank and wealth.)

Overall, about 12% of drivers acted selfishly at this intersection, including people driving clapped-out rustmobiles as well as those in high-end sports cars. However, people driving higher status cars were the most likely to cut off other drivers: 30% of all driving violations were committed by the cars classified as the highest status, compared with 10% by those in crappier cars. And the same pattern of behaviour was also observed at a pedestrian crossing, where drivers of shiny, high-end cars were less likely to stop to allow a pedestrian to cross, as required by both law and basic road etiquette.

Next, the researchers carried out a series of lab studies to explore the links between social class and unethical behaviour. In one experiment, study participants completed a survey to assess their subjective sense of social class. Next, they read about a set of eight ethical quandaries, and answered how they would act in them (for example, “You buy a coffee and pay with it for a $10 bill, but get change for a £20 – do you return the excess change?”). Higher SES individuals were again more likely to take the less ethical option compared with those from lower SES groups.

It’s been suggested that the lower ethical standards of the wealthy turn on attitudes towards greed, and individuals motivated by the lure of lucre are more likely to drop moral principles when they clash with the pursuit of self-interest. So the researchers running the present study looked at the connections between SES, attitudes towards greed, and ethical behaviour in a series of laboratory tests. (Attitudes about greed were assessed by getting people to rate their agreement with statements such as “It is not morally bad to think first of one’s own benefit and not other people’s”, “To be a successful person in this society, it is important to make use of every opportunity”, and “One should be concerned with the benefit to the group as a whole rather than with one’s own benefit”.)

In the first test of the links between SES, greed and ethical standards, participants took part in a mock negotiation in which they played the role of an employer negotiating about salary with a job candidate seeking long-term employment. Participants were told that the job on offer would soon be eliminated — the kind of fact that you might consider fair to tell someone seeking a stable job. Those who scored higher on an SES survey, as well as those saying that it is justified and moral to be greedy, more less likely to tell the hapless interviewee the truth about their employment prospects should they accept this job.

In another experiment, participants were presented with a 5 computer-simulated rolls of a six-sided die, and asked to add up the total score of each roll — and the higher the score they got, they greater reward they would get at the end. Although the rolls of the die were supposedly random, so participants could score anywhere between 5 and 30, the game was in fact rigged so that they total of the rolls would always add up to 12. In this way, the researchers could see who was cheating by simply looking at whether their reported score exceeded 12. You must know what’s coming by now: the higher SES, more pro-greed subjects were more likely to cheat.

While these studies show that high SES and pro-greed attitudes correlate with unethical behaviour, the question remains whether they actually cause it. If they do, then perhaps lower SES people could be induced to behave less ethically by priming them with pro-greed thoughts. This was achieved by getting people to list 3 good things about greed, which led people to subsequently report more favourable attitudes towards greed. After being primed for greed, the subjects were asked how likely they would be to engage in unethical behaviour at work, such as stealing office supplies or money. Now the greed-primed lower SES subjects were almost as likely as those from higher SES groups to endorse the unethical option.

For class warriors, these results are grist for the anti-rich mill. But we should be wary of getting too carried away. Yes, it does look like being of high social status may make you more likely to act like a selfish prick on the roads, and to commit other non-violent moral transgressions, and perhaps particularly of the financial variety. But this isn’t a complete list of the unethical behaviours that perturb the equanimity of modern societies. Violent crimes, from robbery and rape to stabbings and shootings, are big social concerns, and by and large these tend to be more common among those from poorer, lower-status backgrounds. Nonetheless, the social and economic conditions created by the wealthy — especially the widening economic inequalities that have arisen in many countries over recent decades — are relevant factors in explaining rates of violent crime, and many other social ills. (See The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone for more on this.)

Peter Mandelson famously said he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”1. At the very least, research on the social and moral consequences of the pursuit of wealth should make us much less sanguine than Lord Mandelson about following the ethos “greed is good”. Gordon Gekko was wrong, plain and simple2.


1. To his credit, Mandelson has revised his opinions on this score, saying that this comment was “spontaneous and unthoughtful”. His earlier relaxed stance was based on the assumption that globalisation and increasing wealth would benefit everyone, but that’s not how things have panned out, and the new economic order has in fact often created a bigger gap between the haves and have nots.

2. In a new advert, Michael Douglas, who played Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, makes this very point:


About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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