by Larry Kahaner
The McGowan Blog on Business Leadership and Ethics

We all have a love/hate relationship with stereotypes. On the one hand, they allow us to quickly size up someone we just met based on their dress, accent or mannerisms. On the other hand, stereotypes are often inaccurate, perpetuate wrongheaded beliefs and discount individualism.

michael-douglas_gordon-gekkoOne particular stereotype concerns money and it’s this: Rich people are less ethical than  others. The corollary is that poor folk are more honest and ethical. These are stereotypes that are ingrained in most cultures across the globe. It’s even become part of current election rhetoric in the U.S.

Well, there’s new research that shows this old saw may be true.

The study is titled Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior produced by Paul K. Piff of UC Berkeley and others. Unfortunately, I cannot offer you a link to the study for free as I usually do due to copyright issues but you can click here to buy a copy for $US10 or use your school, corporate or local library account to download it. The article will appear in the upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed publication.

Here’s what the researchers wrote:  “Seven studies using experimental [under controlled situations] and naturalistic [in the field under real life conditions] methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower class individuals.” The studies looked at how people reacted while driving and then how they acted in lab studies making decisions which looked at lying, cheating and stealing in work and non-workplace scenarios.

What did researchers conclude was the reason for unethical upper class behavior? “Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.”

Hello Gordon Gekko.

But it’s not that simple. While many will read the headline and a few lines about the research –  and take from it what they want –  the last part of the study was the most revealing and the most important. It’s a nuance often missed in our quick-paced, shallow-thinking web world.

Attitudes toward greed are learned and people can be ‘primed’ to act unethically. When participants in the last part of the study were prepared to think about the advantages of greed and then presented with opportunities to act badly such as stealing cash, accepting bribes and overcharging customers they indeed acted unethically – and it didn’t matter to which socio-economic group they belonged.

In other words, upper class people, in general, have been primed to see that greed is good and lower class people have been taught the opposite. As Piff put it in a prepared statement: “These findings have very clear implications for how increased wealth and status in society shapes patterns of ethical behavior, and suggest that the different social values among the haves and the have-nots help drive these tendencies.”

The question that researchers do not answer is why upper class people believe that greed is good?  Is it because, in their experience, unethical behavior has paid off or do they subscribe to the notion because their parents and peers think so? Or is there another reason?

Piff’s study is the latest in a series of UC Berkeley investigations into the relationship between socio-economic class and prosocial and antisocial emotions and behaviors. I hope my question is explored in future studies. It may be the most important question of all.

Larry Kahaner is Editor of The McGowan Blog on Business Leadership and Ethics, where this post was originally published.