Wealth and Unethical Behavior: Understanding the Relationship Between Social Class and Moral Decision-making

[Economic & Social Psychology]

The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis left a bitter taste in the cultural imagination, a sense that the rich and powerful don’t play by the same rulebook as everyone else. Recent experiments¹ have suggested that there is in fact some truth to this idea, finding that higher social class—defined by education and wealth—predicts unethical decision making. Behavioral scientists David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky reaffirmed this finding in their March 2015 paper, but they also identified situations in which the reverse was true.

It’s important, they argue in their series of six studies, to keep “selfish” conceptually distinct from “unethical” when evaluating moral decisions. For instance, one student could lie to avoid getting in trouble, while another could lie to help a friend avoid getting caught for cheating; both students act unethically, but only one acts solely in her self-interest. The researchers found that people of a higher social class were more likely to behave unethically when they would personally benefit. By way of contrast, people in a lower social class acted unethically when individuals other than themselves stood to gain. In other words, wealth predicted selfishness rather than unethical behavior per se.

This study did not ascertain causality, which is to say there’s no reason to believe that being wealthy makes you selfish, nor that selfish people become wealthy. Instead, these results add an important caveat to the research on class and morality: both upper class and lower class people can do unethical things, but the reasons and contexts in which it occurs likely differ between the two groups. This has important public policy implications, suggesting that it can pay dividends to know your audience when trying to ensure that everyone is playing by the same rules.

1: 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 (pdf).


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