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

01 March 2012


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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