Rich or Poor, We All Behave Badly - Pacific Standard

Rich or Poor, We All Behave Badly

Research shows that people of high and low social classes can act unethically—just in different ways.
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In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, played here by Hugh Jackman, steals bread to feed his family. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, played here by Hugh Jackman, steals bread to feed his family. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

The wealthy have a reputation for unethical behavior. Science has mostly supported this notion: The rich, it seems, are more likely to lie, cheat, and run stop signs. But the business juggernaut convicted of tax fraud and the poor father who steals food to feed his children are each tropes of human behavior. A new study suggests that the rich and the poor both behave badly, just for different reasons.

Derek Rucker, marketing professor at Northwestern University and co-author of the study, found that high social class individuals were apt to behave badly when it benefitted themselves (saving money by skimping on taxes). Low social class individuals, meanwhile, were more likely to behave badly if it benefitted others (steal from the rich and give to the poor)—which, Rucker says, is no less unethical.

Research has shown that the powerful tend to feel independent and focused on their own goals. Powerlessness, on the other hand, increases dependence on and generosity toward others. 

"It changes our understanding of why those in a high social class might commit unethical acts. One perspective is that they’re just unethical bad people," Rucker says. "Our perspective is that they’re a little more prone to be selfish, and so that leads to unethical behavior when it benefits the self."

In one experiment, study subjects played a dice game where anyone who rolled a 14 had to either enter into a lottery or choose to enter someone else. (The game was rigged; the rolls could only add up to 12.) Those who saw themselves as higher up the social ladder tended to cheat when the prize was their own entrance; lower class individuals were more likely to cheat when it meant another person of their choosing could enter the lottery.

The driving force behind unethical behavior, the study found, was not social status per se, but power. Research has shown that the powerful tend to feel independent and focused on their own goals. Powerlessness, on the other hand, increases dependence on and generosity toward others. 

When the researchers manipulated participants' sense of power through writing tasks it changed how participants behaved: When individuals from lower social classes imagined themselves in positions of power, they were more likely to lie and cheat for selfish reasons.

So the rich aren’t necessarily more likely to be unethical, just selfish. The end result may be the same—more lying, cheating, and poor driving—but all is not lost. “Don’t take away that just because you feel powerful or powerless, or because you’re high in social class or low in social class, that that is deterministic of how you’ll behave,” Rucker warns. “This is one factor that can contribute to people’s actions.” And the study suggests that targeted messaging could help combat unethical behavior. Warning lower class people that their wrongdoing could harm others and upper class people of the self-destructive nature of their bad behavior could potentially reduce unethical behavior.

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