Should We Trust the Upper Classes?

Social Scientist Paul Piff reveals the modern day tale of George Orwell's Animal Farm......
04 March 2012

Interview with 

Paul Piff, University of California at Berkeley


Woman holding money


Ben -  Throughout history, a gentleman was something that the lower classes  would defer to and would aspire to become...

But now, research reveals that, paradoxically, those most likely to indulge in unethical, ungentlemanly actions are actually the upper classes themselves!  

Paul Piff led the team behind a study that proves this and he joins us now.  Paul, what were you looking at?  Why was this so interesting to a social scientist?

Paul -   What we were, and have been, basically very interested in for the last few years in our laboratory work is how different levels of status and wealth shape individual patterns of behaviour.  So how does wealth and your status relative to other people in society influence, and really inform, how you see the world and operate toward other people?

We've run dozens of studies that look at these very different kinds of behavioural patterns among upper and lower class individuals.  In this most recent set of studies, we really wonder - very specifically examine - whether wealth and status would shape people's tendencies to behave unethically - their willingness to break the rules, or forego certain kinds of societal norms and standards in the service of their own self-interest.  And so, we conducted a number of studies to look at this. In some, we conducted sort of naturalistic or field studies where we looked at whether drivers with more or less expensive vehicles were differently inclined to break certain kinds of laws whilst driving.  And we also conducted a series of experiments in the lab to more directly test that question.

Ben -   So take me through some of the other experiments you did.  You've watched people to see whether or not they were likely to break the rules when driving an expensive car or a cheaper car.  But other experiments relied on trusting people and their own self reporting.  How did you do this and what were they telling you?

Paul -   So, understandably, the kind of car, the kind of vehicle a person owns isn't a perfect indicator of their socio-economic status or their social class.  So, we wanted to conduct a series of different laboratory experiments to more directly assess where a person ranks relative to others in society, how much wealth they actually have, and then associate that with their actual levels of unethical behaviour.  So for instance, in one study, we brought a group of nationwide adult participants from all over the United States and told them that they would today, very lucky for them, get to participate in a game of chance where the computer would virtually roll a die for them five times.  They would have to keep track of their scores.  Higher scores in the game would be equal to better chances of winning a cash price, a $50 cash price.  

So we asked participants to report their total scores upon the conclusion of all five rolls, but what participants didn't know was that we had rigged the game so that all scores across the board were going to be totalling up to 12.  So there was really no way a participant could actually get a score higher than 12. By looking at the difference between what they reported and 12, we could see whether or not participants were actually cheating in this game to improve their chances of winning this cash prize.  

And amazingly, what we found was that there was a very significant correlation such that even when accounting for a whole slew of other variables, as a person's socio-economic status increased, their tendencies to cheat in this game did as well.

In fact, the people all the way at the top of the socio-economic hierarchy were actually cheating by up to three times as much in this very simple game, relative to their lower class counterparts.  

Ben -   Well that's a very striking result.  I was wondering, what do you think we can really conclude from this?  Is it just that people who are wealthier and are more successful got there by being more selfish, or do you think it's the cause and effect is a bit mixed up?

Paul -   I think that's a very, very nice and elegant point and your audience is probably wondering the same thing.  Correlation obviously does not equal causation so it might very well be the case that unethical people are going to be those more likely or the most likely to also improve their material wealth.  

So I imagine that there's going to be sort of a cyclical or self-perpetuating dynamic at play here. But at the same time, we've run a host of experimental studies where beyond just measuring a person's socio-economic status, we actually manipulate it and we do that in a few different ways, but across the board, what we find is even when people are made to experience a higher sense of social class, even if they're actually from lower class backgrounds, that experience of higher class actually causes them very directly to increase  their unethical tendencies and increase their self-interest behaviour.  This suggests that there really is a very specific effect associated with occupying or believing that you occupy a more privileged position in society with your tendencies to prioritise yourself, and prioritise the pursuit of self-interest, above the well-being and welfare of other people.

Ben -   What do you think this tells us about our interactions in the real world?  Politicians, for example, tend to be people from wealthier backgrounds.  They tend to be very successful people in themselves.  Does this mean that we should conclude really that we shouldn't trust politicians?

Paul -   I don't think that's necessarily the implication at all.  I think that again, it's important to point out that these are not sort of categorical differences that we're finding and it's not necessarily the case that if you're say, "rich" you're necessarily going to behave in an unethical way and also, if you occupy lower rungs in society, that's not to say that you're also going to then be more ethical.  

But what I think our findings suggest is that it's not necessarily the people who are occupying the most privileged positions in society, whether that's powerful politicians or wealthy executives who work in companies or financiers that work on Wall Street, they're not necessarily the most inclined to think about first and foremost, the welfare of other people.  

I think this is partly as a result of the particular culture that they inhabit in that professional and organisational setting.  So, if you work in a place that really hones self-interest and says that the pursuit of competition and self-interest is above all else a good thing then it's likely that it could lead to some fairly socially pernicious consequences. But of course, some politicians are fairly public and people are directly observing of their behaviour. So I think in situations where there are very direct and specific repercussions to one's actions, that may go a long way in curbing what may otherwise be naturally unethical tendencies among those who are the most powerful in society.

Ben -   That is Paul Piff from the University of California at Berkeley, with research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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