Cheaters Always Win—The Paradox of Getting Ahead in America

Is it good for you to be good? The jury seems to still be out.

Posted Mar 06, 2012

I often write about how America's leading successes in politics and business cheat more than the rest of us (in their marriages, on their taxes, in gaining advantages for their children). As I said in "Why Policiticans Get Laid More: The Low Road to the High Life": "How many male readers—who will never achieve political office or become multimillionaires like Bill Clinton—would accept oral sexual favors from a 21-year-old woman at work? You wouldn't? No wonder your career's stalled!"  And, remember, Clinton is beloved worldwide.

My point is that most of us are hemmed in by restrictions—real, imagined, social, economic, legal—that the most daring learn to ignore.  And they often seem to benefit from this insouciance.  But I didn't realize that there was an established research literature showing that higher status people's disregard for societal restrictions was true across-the-board.  For instance:

The paper, by Paul K. Piff of the University of California, Berkeley, and four colleagues, reports that members of the upper class are more likely than others to behave unethically, to lie during negotiations, to drive illegally and to cheat when competing for a prize.

My blogpost was double-edged.  On the one hand, I was regretting the tendency for those in power to cheat and to cut corners the rest of us observe; on the other, I was encouraging people to be bolder and to take more chances in order to realize their potential more fully.

But the post in the New York Times feature "Campaign Stops" I referenced above, by Thomas Edsall, very much emphasizes the negative, as indicated by its title, "Other People's Suffering." It seems that richer, more powerful people are deficient in empathy:

Jennifer E. Stellar, also of Berkeley, writing with three colleagues, points out that: "Our findings suggest that when a person is suffering, upper-class individuals perceive these signals less well on average, consistent with other findings documenting reduced empathic* accuracy in upper-class individuals (Kraus et al., 2010). . . .

A third scholarly essay, "Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others," produced similarly striking findings. In a test measuring empathy, each participant was assigned to listen, face to face, from two feet away, to someone else describing real personal experiences of suffering and distress. "For 'low-power' listeners, compassion [measured both by electrocardiagrams and by self-report] levels shot up as the person describing suffering became more distressed. Exactly the opposite happened for 'high-power' listeners: their compassion dropped as distress rose."


*  Thank God in this case, quoting the researchers, the Times uses the word "empathic," rather than the odious "empathetic" —the usual Times malaprop.

As Edsall notes, these "findings were noteworthy, to say the least." In the first place, they seem inconsistent with the whole "emotional Intelligence" movement, which says that paying attention to other people's emotional cues is the best route to success.  They also seem inconsistent with evolutionary psychologists who have been arguing lately (following "The Selfish Gene") that altruism is a species-inherited genetic destiny.  This began with Robert Trivers' 1971 landmark article, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism," and has been more recently expressed by Stephen Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that all forms of social violence and abuse—war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide—have declined.

Not everyone, naturally, finds Pinker persuasive. All right, so everyone can't be the great fan of evolutionary psychology that I am, like this columnist for The Guardian:

In his earlier works, Pinker was a great populariser of the just-so stories of evolutionary psychology; in this, he has moved on from prehistory to give an account of history, which is still stitched together from just-so stories, but this time illustrated with graphs, and lots of numbers. This kind of thing tends to impress arts graduates. But it's still just a bedtime story and the only serious conclusion to draw from Pinker's work is that a culture that regards him as a great intellectual is one already in serious crisis.

So, which is it?  Do humans progress by being kinder to others and understanding the plights of the downtrodden, or do they do better to ignore these depressing stories?  Do societies advance by displaying empathy towards others outside of their borders and with different customs from their own?  This is certainly Americans' view of themselves and their beneficence towards the rest of the world.  But The Guardian writer quoted above, Andrew Brown, regects this viewpoint as a fairy tale Americans tell themselves: 

This news [Pinker's views] must come as a relief to the inhabitants of Iraq. Soon they will wake up and be reunited with their loved ones in the discovery that the last 10 years have all been a bad dream of a kind of war that no longer exists. What about the second Vietnam war, you know, the one that Rambo fought in? That cost, he says, 1.6m battle deaths. But it is briskly redefined as "a war between states". It's not colonialism when Americans do it, you see.

I don't know. And the answers may be different to questions about empathy and cruelty, on the one hand, and cheating and breaking rules, on the other hand. For the answer to the question, "Do dishonest people who lie and cheat—carefully, i.e., no armed robberies—do better?" seems, unfortunately, to be "yes" (think of our own beloved Bill Clinton and Jack Kennedy).

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