Rich People and Poor People Cheat for Different Reasons

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Photo: Carl Smith/Getty Images

In 2010, a man entered a bank in Watsonville, California, said his backpack contained a bomb, and demanded $2,000. Though this was a foolish and criminal act, it was also a selfless one — he wanted to help pay the rent of a friend who had fallen on hard times. (The manager kept the would-be robber there until the police arrived by having him fill out paperwork for a loan.)

The news is filled with wealthy people acting unethically — look at Wall Street or Washington — and various studies have confirmed that the rich are often more likely to misbehave. Now new research finds that in certain circumstances, it’s the poor who are more likely to cheat. The difference is that the rich do wrong to help themselves, while the poor do wrong to help others — as in the above Parable of the Dumb Samaritan. 

Research has been mounting that higher-class people are more greedy, uncaring, and deceptive than those below them in the hierarchy. For instance, Paul Piff and colleagues reported in 2012 that people who felt their socioeconomic status was greater — they rated themselves highly on the main drivers of class, which are income, education, and occupational prestige — were more likely to cheat during an experiment or to take candy from a dish meant for kids, and drivers of nicer cars were more likely to cut off pedestrians or other drivers at intersections. (Lisa Miller took a deep look into his research for a feature in New York a couple of years ago.)

But previous studies have left several questions unanswered. Are higher-class people more unethical across the board or just more selfish? (You could lie to cover a friend’s ass, which might be unethical but not selfish.) Which elements of class matter most when it comes to nudging people toward ethical or unethical behavior: wealth, education, or occupation? And does class affect ethical behavior by increasing one’s sense of power (control over others) or prestige (respect from others)?

David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky address these issues in several experiments reported in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The idea that upper-class people are less ethical “was an interesting and provocative hypothesis to us,” Rucker said, “and, at the same time, we had a sense that it did not capture the full range of the human experience.”

In the first study, the European participants rolled a virtual die five times, and were told that if the total exceeded 13, they’d be entered into a raffle for a $50 gift card. But totals were self-reported, and the die was rigged so its rolls would always equal 12, meaning that lies were easily detected. Half the participants were told that if they won, they’d receive the gift card, and half were asked to name a friend to receive it instead. They also ranked their own income, education, and occupation on a (single) ten-rung ladder. When playing for themselves, those who ranked themselves higher cheated more, as expected: Those around the 85th percentile on the ladder lied about half the time, while those below the 15th percentile almost never did.

But when playing for a friend’s benefit, those lower on the socioeconomic ladder were more likely to cheat: The folks at the 85th percentile hardly ever cheated, while suddenly those around the 15th percentile cheated about a third of the time. Dubois told me he found the opposite responses between classes the most surprising part of the paper.

In the next study, a different group of participants rated how likely they were to commit various unethical acts, such as steal office supplies or peek at an upcoming exam. For one half of the participants, the acts would benefit themselves, and for the other half they would benefit a friend. Subjects also reported their income and education level. Higher incomes were correlated with an inclination toward unethical behavior that benefited the self, whereas lower income was tied to unethical behavior that benefited others. (Education made no difference.)

Since money is generally associated with power and education with prestige, it’s possible that power is the key part of class status that alters selfishness. Another experiment tested this idea. Participants rated their socioeconomic status (a combination of income, education, and occupation), their sense of power (“I can get others to do what I want,” etc.), and their sense of prestige (“People generally admire me,” etc.). They also rated whether they’d perform the unethical acts from the previous study. Those who felt higher in class felt higher in both power and prestige, but only a sense of heightened power went on to predict a willingness to engage in unethical behavior: It increased self-beneficial violations and reduced other-beneficial violations. So it appears that class increases selfishness specifically by making people feel more powerful.

The first three studies relied on correlation, but the findings were confirmed with three further studies in which people’s sense of class or power was manipulated experimentally. In one of them, making people feel higher in class (by having them compare themselves to people lower in the hierarchy) increased their sense of power. In another, making people feel more powerful (by having them recall a time they had power over others) indeed increased their self-rated willingness to lie for their own benefit—for example by blaming a late assignment on poor health — but making people feel less powerful increased their willingness to lie for another’s benefit. The studies suggest a straightforward sequence: Money leads to the perception that one is higher in the social hierarchy, which in turn leads to a sense of power, which in turn leads to a greater willingness to cheat for selfish reasons. 

I think this is great work, that nicely replicates prior findings and extends them,” Piff said, “and the distinction between ethics and self-interest is really key.” But what, exactly, accounts for their findings about the different reasons rich and poor people cheat? Humans have a natural tendency to break the rules to achieve their own ends (we cheat more when our sense of self-control is depleted, which psychologists take as evidence that this is a deep-seated inclination), and those with power generally have the means to do so. They’re given more leeway in their daily lives, and they can better deal with the consequences of getting caught. They’re also generally less dependent on others, making them more self-focused. So they behave more unethically, but only when it benefits them. People with less money (and therefore less power), however, are more communal. They need to rely on each other to get by, and as a result, research shows, they’re more compassionate and empathically accurate. Breaking rules is always risky, but social cohesion is paramount — so you do what it takes to help those around you.

The economist Stefan Trautmann and colleagues have also argued that the dynamics of class and ethics are not as simple as Piff’s initial findings with the candy dish and fancy cars might suggest. They offered some new data that conflicts with Piff’s, but their main point is that it doesn’t make much sense to talk about someone being across-the-board ethical or unethical. Decisions about wrongdoing depend in the moment on one’s opportunities, the benefits of succeeding, and the costs of getting caught. “Thus, given their wealth,” they write, “an antiques dealer would be much less likely to shoplift but would be much more likely to cheat on taxes than a Walmart clerk.” And a professor traveling to conferences would have more chances to cheat on her husband than would the clerk.

Piff, Stéphane Côté, and Robb Willer have also reported that, in the process of reducing empathy, wealth makes people more utilitarian, in some cases choosing the greatest benefit for the greatest number, even at the expense of a single person. (Mayor Bloomberg cracked down on smoking and obesity for the public good, even though it meant stepping on some toes.) So the lack of compassion that often comes with wealth can occasionally lead to doing good.

Dubois and his co-authors offer some factors that might complicate their own findings. In what researchers refer to as collectivistic cultures (such as those in East Asia and Latin America), power might actually make people more likely to break rules for others versus the self. In team-building situations, power might also increase one’s willingness to rule-break for the sake of others — but only to solidify one’s power base in the long run. And there may still be ways in which class affects ethical behavior via prestige.

Class and ethics: complex subjects that certainly aren’t made any simpler when they’re combined. But the researchers think their findings could lead to some easy practical applications. “Understanding why people commit unethical behaviors might allow us to generate messages to combat them,” Rucker says. So if you’re speaking to higher-class individuals, you might want to appeal to their selfishness and warn that cheating will ultimately backfire. But when talking to those with fewer resources, you might be better off noting that their actions could harm those around them. Mark Smith, the wannabe burglar, thought he was helping out a buddy late on rent, but really he was putting his pal at risk of losing a friend to jail — and embarrassing ignominy.