“This isn’t a rival company you’re battling with; it’s a school. People won’t stand for it.” “Pish posh, it’ll be like taking candy from a baby. Say, that sounds like a larf. Let’s try it right now.”
Mr Burns may be the epitome of a greedy, rich, old man, as evidenced by his quote above, but rich people aren’t really that greedy and selfish, right? Right? Well, perhaps not to that extent, but a group of American and Canadian researchers have recently published the results of a series of experiments showing that upper class people behave more unethically.
The research involved seven separate experiments. The first two studied driving behaviour, approximating people’s social class by how fancy a car they drove. People in classier cars were more likely to cut off other drivers at an intersection and not stop for pedestrians at a crosswalk. In a third, lab-based study, people from higher social classes were more likely to admit that they would perform small, but unethical acts such as keeping the money when a cahier gave them too much change.
In the fourth study subjects were made to feel more upper or lower class by comparing themselves with either poor or rich people. Those made to feel higher in class were more likely to say that they’d perform the unethical acts in study three. Their actual behaviour was tested by giving them a jar of lollies supposedly for children in a nearby lab, but saying that they could take some if they wanted to. The upper class group took more lollies than the lower class, even though this meant less for the children.
The next two experiments looked at the role of greed, with higher class people reported more favourable attitudes to greedy behaviour, explaining their increased likelihood to lie and cheat for their own gain. In the final experiment, people made to think about the benefits of greedy behaviour were more likely to behave unethically, even if they were from a lower social class.
While the upper class may be more likely to behave unethically, this behaviour is actually driven by underlying feelings of greed, which can affect people from any social class. The authors suggest that people higher in social class are more independent from the rest of society. This makes them less aware of the consequences of their actions on others, less likely to be caught and more able to deal with the costs if they are. They may even feel that their position entitles them to act unethically. Without these barriers, they see less reason to avoid unethical behaviour.
But remember that there are many upper class people who do behave ethically, just as there are many lower class people breaking the law. So when you become rich and famous off your wildly successful science blog, remember how your actions affect the little guy and don’t become a senile, buck-toothed old mummy with bony girl-arms who smells like an elephant’s butt.
Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Cote, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(11), 4086-4091. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118373109
The Simpsons, Season 6, Episode 25: “Who Shot Mr Burns (Part One)”
The Simpsons, Season 2, Episode 22: “Blood Feud”
Press release from the National Science Foundation