Science News

Lower social classes more likely to act in a "gentlemanly" way

Thu, 1st Mar 2012

Chris Smith

Throughout history, a "gentleman" was something the lower classes deferred to and aspired to be. But now new research reveals that, paradoxically, those most likely to indulge in Smart carunethical, ungentlemanly actions and the upper classes themselves!

Writing in PNAS, University of California, Berkeley scientist Paul Piff and his colleagues present a series of seven simple studies that appear to show a clear trend towards downright ungamely behaviour with rising social status.

The researchers stood at a Zebra crossing in view of approaching cars to see whether they would stop to allow them to cross. In each case they used the size, make and model of the car as a proxy for the social class of the driver. Drivers with the fanciest wheels, the team found, failed to stop nearly 50% of the time, compared with 25% of drivers sporting more modest forms of transport.

The researchers also made similar observations at a road junction to see which cars tended to give way to others when they should. Again, drivers judged to be "upper class" were over 6 times more likely to cut up another motorist than their lowlier counterparts.

In a further study, volunteers read scenarios in which an actor profited unfairly from a series of situations and then indicated how likely they would be to behave the same way. Again, upper class volunteers tended to behave more unethically.

And in a test in which volunteers had to report the scores from a series of computerised dice rolls to win a cash prize, higher classed players inflated their scores significantly more often.

According to the team, "abundant resources and elevated rank allow upper class individuals increased freedom and independence, giving rise to self-focused patterns of social cognition and behaviour."

They also go on to conclude that "unethical behaviour in the service of self-interest that enhances the individual's wealth and rank may be a self-perpetuating dynamic that further exacerbates economic disparities in society..."


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In part, it really depends on what one means by "Gentlemanly".

I've met some people who could not form a complete sentence without a 4-letter word.  In fact, some seem to be able to construct a whole sentence entirely out of 4-letter words.

I would wonder if there is more about a car than "social class".  For example, many University professors might be more likely to drive a frugal car than a business executive. CliffordK, Fri, 9th Mar 2012

In fact, all the sentences in your reply use 4-letter words :-) In the referenced article the concept of a gentleman was defined in his treatment of others and not to do with having a "limited" vocabulary. Also, I think the use of profanities by an individual can depend on who he is talking to and/or where he is. If you go back 50 years, it was common for working men to swear a lot but rare for them to do so in front of a child or a woman and even rarer to hear the "F" word (and almost never the "C" word) except on occasions with their workmates. I think the role of women has changed so that they are not protected from this now and, indeed, you sometimes hear women mouthing off just as much as any bloke.

In my opinion, kindness and consideration of others is what counts. I note wikipedia says (of the word "gentleman") ... "In modern speech, the term is usually democratised so as to include any man of good, courteous conduct, or even to all men (as in indications of gender-separated facilities, or as a sign of the speaker's own courtesy when addressing others)". Older definitions referred to the social class which was often (and still) wrongly associated with good behaviour.

The correlation between "being considerate" with the type of car being driven is interesting but it needs far more analysis to further associate the car type with social class. I would cite that salesmen (and especially car salesmen) often drive expensive (company) cars but the correlation between their social status and car is a loose one. At the other extreme, "white van" drivers often deserve their reputation. I would add in both cases that there are many exceptions.

As a matter of interest, when I was young I had at one time a rather beaten up old ford cortina and was shown great courtesy by a lesser member of the Royal Family driving himself in a Rolls (HRH number plate). graham.d, Fri, 9th Mar 2012

Wow - Naked Scientist tries its hand at sociology and falls at the first hurdle.  For most of history (ie the first bit) the Nobility were not treated with deference - they were feared and loathed as bloody and brutal rulers who maintained power through cowing the population.  The lower orders did not obey and serve them out of a sense of respect - they were subjected to a lifelong reign of oppression and control.  As various people found their political feet they started to rebel against this - virtually every modern pluralistic state has been through a period of history (in most cases many different occasions) in which the common man rebelled against tyranny from the higher social classes; whether they were levellers, minutemen, communards or bolsheviks they represented a resentment rather than a deference towards the ruling nobility. 

For the vast majority of the world, even now and more so in the past, more than a month without a job or some form of social aid is an impossibility - the welfare state has eased this burden and allows the possibility of a second chance.  Prior to the welfare state (and its precursors) it was this lack of safety net that meant that in fact the working classes throughout history has actually aspired to the easing of their pain and the lifting of the burden of constant near poverty from their shoulders.

imatfaal, Fri, 9th Mar 2012

There is, of course, the saying "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

I certainly believe that there are quite a few bad apples in in politics in the world today.  But, there are a few exceptional individuals too. 

I suppose I don't know a lot about the day-to-day life of President George Washington, but the one thing he did bring the country was a term limit convention that lasted all the way until President Roosevelt, and now made into law with the 22nd amendment of the constitution.

That simple act of not doing a power-grab certainly had a big impact on US politics, and perhaps global politics. 

Anyway, among politicians, there are some good ones,and many bad ones. CliffordK, Fri, 9th Mar 2012

Well said Imatfaal and I also agree with Clifford that not all politicians are bad. I even think that most mean well but are corrupted by the necessities of their job as politicians. We get the politicians we deserve (as nations); democracies only work if there is a well informed populace and, sadly, this is not the case.

I was going to go into specifics but I will refrain or it could turn the thread into a political debate. graham.d, Fri, 9th Mar 2012

For a start, the "lower social classes" are an invention of those who got lucky. The great thing, or depending on your point of view, possibly the worst thing, about the US, is that it strips away any notion of class and replaces it with money! You don't have to have money to be classy, and just because you have money you are not automatically classy (QED a long list of people).

I like the US because it really recognizes and encourages innovators. What I hated about the UK was that engineers were neither recognized by the "professional" community, nor the "academic" community. Combined with the ludicrous taxation system, the lousy weather, and the even more atrocious politics in Scotland, that was quite enough.

What is striking is that most of the UK's wealth was based on the innovations of a relatively small number of UK engineers. Sadly, that does not seem to be fully appreciated in the UK. One might even say that it is not even appreciated in the slightest.

IMHO, even though it's fun, the UK needs to wake-up, and stop dwelling so much in the past. Museums are OK, but does an entire country need to become one? The UK better figure out what it wants to look like 100 years from now, and the USA better do the same.

Geezer, Sun, 11th Mar 2012

You are largely right, Geezer. I am one of the of unappreciated engineers :-) However, I made a conscious decision to not move to the USA in 1980 after being offered a good job at Intel (in Aloha, Oregon) and started my own company instead. I had just started a family so had to decide whether I wanted my children to grow up with British or UK values, and seeing the recent choices for the Republican primaries, I am not sure that I made a wrong decision here :-). I feel many people in science are not attracted by the positions taken by some US politicians on scientific matters, though engineering is different in this respect. The UK also has its own set of problems and I'm not blind to these, so the decision was not a clear one - and Oregon is a very nice place despite it being just after Mt St Helens had gone bang. Money is also nice to have, but it is not a main driving factor for me. I used to play cricket, and had planned to set up an Intel team with British, Indian and Pakistani expats, but I knew that it would be hard to get the fixtures, at least without travelling 100s of miles to get a game! This was important for me. As was the really lousy standard of US TV at the time. There were many other considerations too. Anyway, I have done OK in the UK and I can't tell where I'd be if I'd have moved to the US.

What is striking is the proportion of US wealth that is also generated by a small number of engineers, but from outside the USA. Or, if not, then just the "next generation". The US has been very good at attracting good people from around the world to go and work there. It has now turned much more inward looking, with threats of terrorism etc., and become more parochial; I think this is a big mistake.

The "class" concept exists everywhere in the world; it is just the definitions of the classes that are different as well as how they relate to each other and how easy it is to move between them. As Geezer says, I think the amount of money you have has been a defining value in US society. It is more that way in the UK now as this has certainly replaced to old and defunct values based on inheritance. Though it is amazing to see the US "dynasties" of political power seeming to mirror these old concepts. The "classes" in Britain today are more related to shared values; though this, in turn, is often based on economic status, it is not wholly so. Melvyn Bragg just had a set of 3 TV programmes that looked at these issues, which was quite interesting. graham.d, Sun, 11th Mar 2012

Don't know about then. Today there does seem to be an attitude of entitlement amongst the wealthy classes. Which can lead to rude behavior being more common. But then rude behavior seems to be the norm amongst most classes these days. Rude behavior, for whatever reason, has become the norm.

There was a study, at least a decade ago, if I remember correctly, where a test for honesty amongst classes was conducted. Wallets with $50 in assorted bills were dropped on the road side in all sections of the U.S. and in all sections of social wealth. There was identification in every wallet.

The results - the wealthiest people were the most likely to take the money and keep it. The least wealthy were the most likely to see that it was returned  to the owner. I believe the test results broke it down into what parts of the country were more honest and what parts were not as well.

Still the important point to take away from the study is that people who need money the least are more likely to keep it for themselves, at least under the conditions of the study, where there was no chance of being found out, and no chance of negative consequences. Gordian Knot, Sun, 11th Mar 2012

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