A new study by the University of California at Berkeley suggests that the richer you are, the ruder and less ethical you are. One experiment tried to determine who is more likely to take candy from kids. You guessed it: the Daddy Warbucks type.
The study – published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – looked at a series of seven tests to gauge the ethical behaviors of different economic classes. To the academic minds at Berkeley, the results proved that “upper-class individuals are more self-focused, they privilege themselves over others, and they engage in self-interested patterns of behavior.”
In other words, they tend to live and breathe the saying, “Greed is good.”
One small question, though: Is this study a class critique – or an instruction manual for how to get rich?
After all, considerable research suggests that the rich get rich by embracing greed, and that it's often small, daily decisions about saving and spending that result in wealth over time. Added to what some call America's “capitalist spirit,” behaviors seen by others as greedy or unethical simply fit into Donald Trump's dictum in “The Art of the Deal”: “The point is, you can't be too greedy.”
“If 'greed' is defined as a desire to possess wealth for its own sake, even a modest amount of greed will suffice,” Johns Hopkins University researcher Christopher Carroll wrote in a paper called, “Why Do the Rich Save So Much?” “Of course, towering and obsessive greed cannot always be ruled out.”
To be sure, the Berkeley study doesn't measure deviance, just degrees of ethical behavior, the researchers note. It didn’t explore links to violent tendencies or crimes. Rather, the study simply measured daily social interactions and small behaviors to examine how socioeconomic class affects behavior.
Moreover, the study doesn't suggest that poorer Americans are paragons of virtue, the researchers are careful to point out. In fact, previous Berkeley studies have found poverty linked to violent crimes.
At the same time, a couple of the more eye-popping findings in the new study might bear some scrutiny.
One study watched a busy intersection in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those in snazzier, higher-status cars were four times more likely to cut off some guy driving a beat-up van, and three times as likely to cut off pedestrians in a crosswalk. However, the make of a car is not always an accurate indicator of the driver's wealth, critics note.
The candy-jar experiment is, well, the most jarring. But that, too, bore some criticism. When study participants were told they could take a few candies from a jar intended for kids, wealthier individuals took twice as much candy as other, less well-heeled participants.
That may signal a sense of entitlement, but as a measure of ethical failure, it falls a bit short, Meredith McGinley, an assistant professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg News. She pointed out that since participants were told they could take the candy, they might not have consciously thought they were committing an act of greed.
One experiment found that wealthier individuals playing a computer game of dice to win a $50 gift certificate for Amazon.com were more likely to fib about their results than were their poorer compatriots. Another experiment had participants playact as employers negotiating a salary with a job candidate who is looking for a steady job. The faux employers were told they were free to mention that the job would soon be eliminated. The study found that upper-class participants were more likely to withhold that information, which the study's authors concluded was evidence of a willingness to deceive.
In the last experiment, study leaders “primed” participants to consider the advantages of greed and then presented them with negative workplace behaviors like stealing cash, accepting bribes, and overcharging customers. Once they'd been encouraged to look at greed favorably, lower-class participants appeared just as keen to participate in such unethical behaviors as their richer peers.
“As these issues come to the fore, our research – and that by others – helps shed light on the role of inequality in shaping patterns of ethical conduct and selfish behavior, and points to certain ways in which these patterns might also be changed,” Paul Piff, a co-author and PhD candidate in psychology at Berkeley, told the school’s media department.
The study is part of an effort at Berkeley to pinpoint behaviors and attitudes of different socioeconomic classes. Of course, others have stated things more pithily. “The rich are different than you and me,” the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked to Ernest Hemingway. “Yes, they have more money,” Hemingway replied.