I saw this video on upworthy.com which is based on the study Higher social class predicts unethical behavior from Berkeley university. It basically argues, that being rich makes people behave more unethically.

The study is a review article of seven separate studies which concluded the following points:

  1. upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals (2 studies).
  2. upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies,
  3. take valued goods from others,
  4. lie in a negotiation,
  5. cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize,
  6. upper-class individuals were more likely to endorse unethical behavior at work than were lower-class individuals.

What is unethical behavior?

The study does not give a definition of what it deems to be unethical but it certainly understands the above given points as being unethical.

Correlation versus Causation

The conclusion sounds very harsh to me. I always see the problem, that there might have been some confusion with what is the actual cause and what is just correlation. My first thought was, that maybe greedy/unethical people are just more effective in becoming rich. But this issue seems to have been addressed. In one part of the study participants played a skewed game of Monopoly where one person had significant advantage compared to the other. One player was "rich" the other "poor". The rich player started off with more funds and was allowed to play with two dice, the poor person only got to role one die.

The "rich" player started to behave like someone who is of more value. He started to talk in a harsher voice, being more commanding, using less polite language, grabbing more of the provided snacks. The researchers defined this behavior to be more unethical and hence concluded not only correlation but also causation between being rich and unethical behavior.

Is the conclusion valid?

Nevertheless I am Skeptical that there is such a clear cut conclusion that being rich means being more unethical.

Is the conclusion of the study valid, have there been more studies confirming or contradicting the results, are there other follow-ups?

  • 4
    This question is a bit broad. Surely there are classes of criminal behavior or unethical behavior that are favored by one group or another. Petty crime like shoplifting or street robbery, would involve greater penalties for the rich (e.g. loss of higher paying jobs and goodwill in business) than the poor, and therefore being rich decreases the likelihood of a person to commit these kinds of crimes. On the other hand, you more or less need to be upper middle class or rich to be guilty of insider trading. Only the rich can deceive through mass media, e.g., "cigarettes are good for you." – Paul Jul 17 '13 at 12:28
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    Who claims that the being rich causes unethical behaviour, rather than just being correlated with more likely unethical behaviour? – user5582 Jul 17 '13 at 14:05
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    @Sancho: If I recall the experiments correctly, they randomly assigned players to positions on a biased Monopoly game, and showed the player who unfairly had the advantage showed many of the same behaviours. So they were able claim causation not just correlation. – Oddthinking Jul 17 '13 at 14:18
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    Is "ethical behavior" a scientific concept? Is it the same for all groups? – Dr. belisarius Jul 17 '13 at 15:25
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    "upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving" - did the study account for higher likelyhood that upper class individuals drive more; drive in areas with higher police presence; drive in areas with higher speed limit enforcement; or possibly more likely to get charged with speeding when caught? "upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies" - did they make a political value judgement on what constitutes "ethical", like excluding lazing about while other people pay for your life; or illegally crossing US border? – user5341 Jul 24 '13 at 17:23

Per study 'Social class, power, and selfishness: When and why upper and lower class individuals behave unethically' by David Dubois et.al. in 2015, people of high and low social classes both can act unethically in different ways.

The results of the study were,

First, income, but not education level, predicted unethical behavior. Second, feelings of power mediated the effect of social class on unethical behavior, but feelings of status did not. Third, two distinct manipulations of power produced the same moderation by self-versus-other beneficiary as was found with social class.

The study found that the driving force behind unethical behavior was not social status but power. Research through the study has shown that the powerful tend to feel independent and focused on their own goals. Powerlessness, on the other hand, increases dependence on and generosity toward others. More details about the study are described here.

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