Are the Rich Jerks? See the Science

F. Scott Fitzgerald was right. The rich really are different from you or me. They’re more likely to behave unethically.

That’s the finding of a group of studies by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The research shows that people of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to break traffic laws, lie in negotiations, take valued goods from others, and cheat to increase chances of winning a prize. The resulting paper, “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” [PDF] was published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Perhaps most surprising, as this story by PBS NewsHour economics reporter Paul Solman shows, is that the tendency for unethical behavior appears not only in people who are actually rich, but in those who are manipulated into feeling that they are rich. As UC Berkeley social psychologist Paul Piff says, the results are statistical in nature but the trend is clear. “While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff told New York magazine, “the rich are way more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

via Dangerous Minds



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  1. Charles DuFarle says . . . | July 24, 2013 / 2:03 pm

    And not for the first time. The ancient Greek admonition “All things in moderation.” Barbarians were those who did not water their wine (AKA Macedonians). But for the Greeks sin was not being in control of ones self. We know it as power corrupts absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    BTW A fantasy I have, Is that for the ancient Roman Latin translation of Genesis 3:24 if one inserts a circumflex then “tree of life” becomes “woody vine” and thus becomes the first incidence of tough love because of drug dependence.

  2. jae_pie says . . . | July 24, 2013 / 9:52 pm

    I wouldn’t make an overgeneralization like that. I can’t say “all of them” because I don’t know every detail. That would be an uneducated statement. There is good and bad in everyone; rich or poor. Everyone has to learn how to balance it all, but where there’s conformity-this is when things get a bit robotic and expectations of swimming with the stream are almost required. I find people that need to ‘conform’ a bit lost and unsure of what they want; they need others to make decisions for them. What’s the point of being a human being if you don’t eventually think for yourself and use your God given brain. Are people using more than 10% ONLY 10% of the population, in the US, for crying out loud? I sure hope not.

    My answer is-not all of them…just the conformist within that society and that goes for any other social group.

  3. Joel Lewis says . . . | July 24, 2013 / 11:38 pm

    Charles – your fantasy is a little badly worked out. For someone who apparently has some knowledge of Hebrew, I would have expected you to also know that in the Genesis story the first couple don’t actually eat from the tree of life, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They are then expelled to prevent them from eating from the tree of life. So it’s more a story of effective prohibition …..

  4. Olivier says . . . | July 25, 2013 / 12:41 am

    Well, here “rich” or “poor” rather works as a proxy than an explanatory variable per se.

    I explain: the fast BMW, the rigged Monopoly game are attributes of the rich, but more importantly a signal of power and/or self-confidence. So when the kid who is winning is acting more like an alpha dog, I believe it is simply his inner self that is saying “hey, you’re in control here.” And the player that is bound to lose acts as a dominated dog.

    I am not too surprised by the results but I would be very careful to pin it down to “money” and not “power.”

    Also, I did not read the experiment but people should be very careful about the setup of the experiment: is California polarized by rich and poor distinction ? What is the distribution of wealth in California (to see the base rate) ? Aren’t university students (and Berkeley’s in particular) specific in their characteristics ?

    Lastly, wealth could be (I insist on the “could”) linked to capabilities and the capacity of seeing the whole system and act strategically in consequence: “if there is a possibility to cheat, it is me or the other, so it rather be me.” When it comes to lying in a negociation, well… it’s a negociation, no ? ;)

  5. Carole M. Di Tosti (@mercedeskat45) says . . . | July 25, 2013 / 6:32 am

    The research is interesting but skewed, like all research to a result. There are more studies currently on the wealth gap; it’s a hot topic and certainly the researcher protests too much about how “he was surprised at viralish interest of the public who emailed him, etc. The main problem I have with the initial research is that there are no “true” rich individuals. The folks he used, students from Berkley are not royalty, nor are they kids whose parents are hedge fund CEOs,with 10 residences in cities throughout the world. They are at best upper middle class. The rich are chauffeured. Mercedes and BMWs are affordable middle class cars…often the high end ones BMWs are leased and charged to the business. So we’re talking the West Eggers of Gatsby…and those folks demonstrate the worst values as Fitzgerald pointed out…those are the ones that conducted themselves as if they were at a carnival or circus. Different from the rich who would never sit for such a test. That alone should have been included in the experiment. So what it really shows is the gradations of economic class…but it puts a thesis/antithesis argument structure which is patently and abjectly rotten argument, and so general as to be meaningless. Nothing is ever as simple as thesis/antithesis (argument for the stupid). (Listen to the tone of the media announcer who is disdaining and supercilious) It once again shows the mainstream media’s relentless need to boil down complexity into very incorrect simple constructs…that discourage thought and lead to very wrong conclusions that brainwash. By the way, I drive a Mercedes because my mother was killed in a car accident. I drive the affordable one…I’ll have the car for 10 years and hopefully get 250,000 miles with it… I live in a two room apartment…and I know more like me who are generous and caring people. I have a Ph.D. and my degree allowed me to study research practices in depth…ha, ha, ha. Most social science research and medical science research is terrible flawed and is used to prove constructs that are widely generalized and basely untrue. That is not to say all research is bunk…one must look at each example. Who has time for that? If mathematics is involved…then all the better…but the bottom line…the results are open to interpretation. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle rocks.

  6. Carole M. Di Tosti (@mercedeskat45) says . . . | July 25, 2013 / 6:37 am

    To add, the researcher is moving along the lines of something mainstream media would pick up and report on…again, a current trend. The film the East throws this construct on its head…in a few interesting twists. But as for the .001% of ruling elites? The little people are cannon fodder… You don’t have to do research to prove that. All you have to do is live in on this planet for 40 years and you get the picture.

  7. Hanoch says . . . | July 25, 2013 / 2:50 pm

    First, just assume the wealth of a driver by the type of car he is driving. Then, just assume that if he or she went out of order at a 4-way stop sign, he made a conscious decision to outgun his roadway “adversary”. Unbelievable.

  8. Susara says . . . | July 28, 2013 / 10:01 pm

    Good point, Carole, and well stated.

  9. paradoctor says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 11:35 am

    Busted!
    We knew this already, but it’s nice to have scientific confirmation.

  10. Dave Heide says . . . | July 30, 2013 / 10:43 am

    i love the rich. they’re very tasty.

  11. Jennifer Marie says . . . | November 14, 2013 / 4:03 pm

    Can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve seen people driving mercedes cutting people off, refusing to use indicators.. and why is it that rich people frequently do things that are really cruel to animals like get involved in shooting for “sport” and eating foie gras and veal? Pathetic

  12. Jennifer Marie says . . . | November 14, 2013 / 4:05 pm

    There is DEFINITELY a wealth gap in Australia. I can’t relate to most wealthy people. I have yet to meet a very wealthy person who was also down to earth and cared about the things I care about (environment, animal welfare, spirituality etc). They ask me “oh did you see that show on tv yesterday” talking about their $300 per month foxtel package, not even realising that some of us could never afford stupid stuff like that.

  13. Brad S says . . . | February 1, 2014 / 7:29 pm

    At my restaurant I constantly deal with wealthy customers who are very nasty.
    Espeacilly the men who come in a group without there wives. They yell profanities, drink way too much and generally act like pigs. I know they feel as though there money protects them somehow. They act like everyone else should bow to them regardless of how they act. If you took there money away, however, and put them in a harsh environment to fend for themselves there true weakness would be glaring. Wealth has made them dependent on wealth. They are truly weak because they believe money makes you strong. And this inherently makes them shallow and insecure. Forcing them to show off and overcompensate there insecurities.

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