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Social Class and Unethical Behavior

Self-interest can have a moral cost, but it is not inevitable.

Of all classes, the rich are the most noticed and the least studied. — John Kenneth Galbraith

“Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.” This is the title of a research report by Paul Piff and colleagues (2012) published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. My attention was piqued, and I read the report carefully. Important issues are raised about the good life, how to attain it and—alas—how not to do so.

Timing is important, in science and other domains, and this report appears while we are still reeling from economic woes attributed in part to the shenanigans of wealthy folks on Wall Street and elsewhere, while United States politicians and everyday people are debating the disparities between the 1% and the 99%, and while professional sports are dominated by conflicts between millionaires (the players) and billionaires (the team owners). This research is therefore interesting in the here and now, if only because it supports the suspicion of many people that those of a higher social class* not only have more money but somehow are not playing by the same rules as others and in particular not by the right rules.

Before I weigh in on these larger issues, let me describe the research, which is impressive. Seven different studies, using different methods and different samples of research participants, were conducted, and all pointed to the same conclusion. As I have previously observed, conceptual replications of a hypothesis deserve to be taken seriously.

Study 1 was a field investigation relying on observation. Were drivers of more expensive cars more likely to cut off other drivers at a busy 4-way stop intersection? Results showed that those who drove high status—expensive and well-maintained—cars did not yield the right of way as frequently as those who drove low status cars.

Study 2 was another field investigation relying on observation of cars. Results showed that those who drove high status—expensive and well-maintained—cars did not yield the right of way to pedestrians (who were confederates of the researchers) at a crosswalk as often as those who drove low status cars.

(Hmm … If you intend to be rich, I guess I won’t stand in your way.)

Study 3 was a study of college students asked to respond to scenarios about unethical behavior like the following. “You get the final exam back from your professor, and you notice that he’s marked correct three answers that you got wrong. Revealing this difference would make the difference between an A and a B. You say nothing.” Respondents were asked how likely it would be that they would behave in the way the scenario described. Those respondents who described themselves as having higher social class were more likely to endorse these unethical behaviors.

Study 4 was a laboratory study. College students who described themselves as having higher social class were more likely to help themselves to pieces of candy from a jar supposedly intended for children in an apparently unrelated study.

Study 5 was a web-based investigation of adults. Respondents were asked to imagine a hypothetical negotiation with a job candidate. The candidate was interested in a position that would last at least two years, but the respondents knew the job would be eliminated after six months. How likely were the respondents to mention this fact if the potential employee asked about job security? Respondents described their social class as well as their attitudes toward self-interest versus the welfare of others. The researchers interpreted a self-interested attitude as the endorsement of greed, a point to which I will return. But in the meanwhile, the results were straight-forward: Higher social class respondents were less likely to tell the job candidate the truth, and this was partly accounted for by their endorsement of self-interest as morally justified.

Study 6 was another on-line investigation of adults, who were invited to participate in a game of chance. Respondents were asked to score themselves and report their results. The game was actually rigged so that everyone did the same. Respondents who reported that they did better than they possibly could have done were therefore designated as having cheated, and again, those of higher social class were more likely to cheat, and this was partly accounted for by their endorsement of self-interest as morally justified.

Study 7 was yet another on-line experiment that put adult participants in one of two conditions. In the first, they were asked to think of ways that greed (self-interest) was good, and in the second, they were simply asked to think of the things they do in a typical day. All respondents were then presented with a list of unethical behaviors at work, like making personal long-distance phone calls, giving store merchandise away to friends, misleading customers about the actual cost of products, and so on. How likely would it be that a respondent do these sorts of things? In the neutral condition, higher social class individuals were more likely to endorse unethical behavior than were lower social class individuals. And “priming” lower social class individuals to think of self-interest as good led them to endorse unethical behavior at the same level as higher social class individuals.

These findings are not only interesting but also worthy of attention because they all point to the same conclusion. So what do they mean?

First, a caveat is in order, one acknowledged by Piff and colleagues. Although all of the outcome measures entailed “bad” (AKA unethical) behavior, there are nonetheless degrees of bad behavior, and this research did not sample the full range. Failing to yield the right of way at an intersection or not acknowledging an incorrectly scored exam is not the same thing as physically assaulting someone or robbing someone at gunpoint. Had these sorts of behaviors been examined in this line of research, one suspects that the results might have been different.

Indeed, the sorts of behavior studied by Piff and colleagues for the most part entailed harm done diffusely or at a distance, literal or metaphorical. For example, Study 4 did not require participants to pry candy out of the hands of children. Harm spread over many or harm done at a distance is still unethical but probably easier for most of us to do and to justify, no matter our social class (Kish-Gephart, Harrison, & Treviño, 2010).

My interpretation of the findings would not use the label “unethical” (although it may fit) but rather “entitled,” which seems more precise (Lessard, Greenberger, Chen, & Farruggia, 2011). Along these lines, “self-interest” can be greedy, but “greed” is not the first word that comes to my mind in thinking about individuals who make long-distance phone calls on the company’s bill. Again, the world “entitled” seems more precise.

Whether we call the actions studied in these investigations unethical, greedy, or entitled, they are still wrong. We need to go beyond labels and explain them, especially if we want to do something about them. Stopping with the labels would be class warfare, and in this case, I opt to be a pacifist.

Are those from higher social classes bad people? Not exactly. They are more likely to do some things we can agree are bad, but like everyone, those from higher social classes are best described in terms of a profile of their good and bad characteristics.

That said, why would those of higher social class sometimes act differently, and sometimes more unethically, than those of lower social class? I think the explanation lies in part in the enhanced self-interest of those from higher social classes. Self-interest can pay dividends in terms of achievement and accomplishment, but it may also have a moral cost if it leads to an indifference to others.

The good news, I believe, is that the tradeoff between self-concern and other-concern is at best a soft one and hardly inevitable. We all know individuals who are socioeconomically privileged yet also generous and kind. How can a concern with others be encouraged among those from higher social classes (and people in general)?

Put a human face on those who might be harmed by the moral shortcuts that we are tempted to take. Stop and think, in concrete terms, about who might be hurt if we drive aggressively, receive higher grades than we deserve, mislead our customers or fellow employees, or cheat at a game. "No one" is a poor answer. Rather, it is Fred, or Mary, or Peter. And in the long run, it is also us who are harmed because we become less than we might be, one small and unethical action at a time. This is a realization that should appeal to even the most self-interested among us.

*When social scientists study social class, they distinguish among people in terms of wealth, occupational prestige, and/or education. Often these criteria line up, but not always, a complication that needs to be taken into account in interpreting studies of differences across social classes. As is well-known, neither Bill Gates nor Steven Jobs earned a college degree, but they of course have enjoyed huge incomes and great prestige.


Kish-Gephart, J. J., Harrison, D. A., & Treviño, L.K. (2010). Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels: Meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 1-31.

Lessard, J., Greenberger, E., Chen, C., & Farruggia, S. (2011). Are youths' feelings of entitlement always "bad"?: Evidence for a distinction between exploitive and non-exploitive dimensions of entitlement. Journal of Adolescence, 34, 521-529.

Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. PNAS, 109, 4086-4091.

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