From the Globe & Mail article “It’s true: The rich really are ruder”:

Psychologist Paul Piff has coined a memorable label for the phenomenon: the Asshole Effect. Prof. Piff and his colleagues have shown that there is a reliable correlation, across a range of scenarios, between wealth and inconsiderate behaviour. Wealthy people are more likely to exhibit rudeness in cars, take more than equal shares of available goods, and think they deserve special treatment.


Piff confirms experimentally the arguments of Aaron James’s 2012 book Assholes: A Theory.

Has Piff, or any other researcher, convincingly compiled evidence that indicates that rudeness correlates with wealth?

Is there any indication that the source of the wealth affects the outcome - from inheritance, to earnings, to lotteries?

  • 4
    Are you asking to show a correlation, or a causal effect?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 19:12
  • @gerrit - I think it is sufficient to show correlation here. Unless people are born rude, then is causation implied for those born wealthy? Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 20:53
  • 7
    One might speculate rudeness helps in becoming or staying rich, and this rudeness is transferred to the next generation (more likely by nurture than by nature).
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 22:24
  • @gerrit - alternately, some innate ability and self confidence helps in becoming or staying rich; and people with appropriate abilities and mindset may be ruder in general - both innately AND because others mistake a rational sense of self worth for being an a-hole.
    – user5341
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 17:14
  • @gerrit - or, even more plausible, there's a correllation (and possibly causation?) between autism spectrum and becoming rich, at least in relative meritocracy of modern western societies. And the former is definitely causative with diminished social/emotional IQ that can easily translate to actual or percieved rudeness.
    – user5341
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 17:16

2 Answers 2


Yes, Piff has compiled evidence of correlation between wealth/social class versus narcissism, entitlement, and unethical behaviour. Whether this evidence is convincing I leave to anyone studying the details of the research.

Piff, Paul K. "Wealth and the Inflated Self Class, Entitlement, and Narcissism." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40.1 (2014): 34-43. DOI: 10.1177/0146167213501699

In this paper, Piff describes a number of experiments based on questionnaires. Some of the studies recruited participants through the internet, whereas others used undergraduate students. In one experiment, controlling for factors like gender and ethnicity, he interviewed 195 adults on questions related to entitlement, and questions related to social class. He correlated the two, and found that As predicted, higher social class was associated with increased scores on the PES, r(178) = .17,p = .021. In another study, he correlated question related to entitlement to objective measures on social class, such as parental education. Here, he found that Central to my hypothesis, parental educational attainment—an objective indicator of social class—was positively associated with scores on the PES, r(93) = .22, p = .036. Three more studies are also described in the paper. In the conclusions, he posits further research is needed to test his hypothesis it is relative and not absolute wealth that controls entitlement and narcissism.

In another paper,

Piff, Paul K., Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner. "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 11 (2012): 4086-4091.,

the abstract summarises:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

So, yes, Piff has published research showing correlations between social class and entitlement. Whether this is a cause-and-effect relationship is a different question. A full list of his publications is available on his website. See also reports on rigged monopoly games.

  • 3
    On a quick read-through of the second paper (the first is paywalled), he seems to have carefully designed the studies to obtain desired results. For instance, studies 1 & 2 examine only one form of behavior while ignoring many others, assign drivers to social classes based on purely subjective criteria (this thread money.stackexchange.com/questions/43967/… might be relevant), and so on.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 23:42
  • If i remember right, thr second study looked at if expensive cars would yield the right of way to someone in a crosswalk. Expensive cars are not a good proxy for "wealthy"
    – user1873
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 2:39
  • 2
    @gerrit: Not entirely, because it works in the other direction as well. There are wealthy people who choose not to spend money on cars or fancy clothing. (Depending on just what you define as wealth, I could be one of them.) And there are of course other forms of automotive rudeness, such as boom cars or loud mufflers, which seem to inversely correlate with wealth.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 5:12
  • 4
    @jamesqf A statistically significant correlation does not preclude sizable groups of outliers.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 5:22
  • 1
    @gerrit: Sure, but I think it does cast some doubt on the overall validity of the results. As one possibility, suppose the "wanna look rich" outlier group is highly stressed by the effort they devote to keeping up appearances, and that stress leads them to behave rudely.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 18:13

First, I'd like to thank Oddthinking for calling me out on the flaws in my first response to this. Of course that response took me five minutes and this one took me 90 minutes :). Hopefully, you'll find this a bit more informative.

In 2011, Paul Piff and others released a paper summarizing studies that purport to show that "that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals". Piff's paper can be found at http://www.pnas.org/content/109/11/4086.full. I find this work to be flawed in many ways which I intend to enumerate below. I don't intend for this to be a full, systematic analysis, as I find that a partial review is enough to discount that papers position.

One consistent problem with Piff is that he frequently displays narrow and opinionated ideas of ideal behavior. He does not spend any time at all discussing any sort of foundation of ethics. But his paper often relies on ideas founded in ethics. For example, we find this early in the paper:

"upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed"

Political and social battles are often fought with words. For example, governments will use the words terrorist or freedom fighter to label groups exhibiting the exact same behaviors depending on whether we wish that group to be our allies. Piff does not define the word "greed" here. Instead it appears he wishes to use it to induce an emotional reaction: hardly the thing one would expect from a scientific study. "Greed" is a word that enters the realm of economics and is best understood from that perspective. I don't have time or space here to discuss that fully, however, in short, wealth is gained by satisfying the wants of others. In the free market, to earn wealth, you must be able to supply goods or services that others want, and do that in an efficient enough manner so that not only are your customers happy and your expenses paid (likely including the creation of jobs, improving the lives of others), but there is profit left over. Piff does not discuss this subject at all in this paper. He also does not discuss the fact that 95% of high wealth households give to charity and the income group with the largest donation rate as a percentage of income are those making 10$ million or more a year.

Piff paragraphs build up pictures of the wealthy as some kind of alien monsters: "less cognizant of others", "worse at identifying the emotions that others feel", "more disengaged during social interactions", "more likely to engage in unethical behavior", "less generous and altruistic", "more selfish" and finally concluding "These findings suggest that upper-class individuals are particularly likely to value their own welfare over the welfare of others". Aren't there other possible explanations for all this? Humans are not ant-like creatures, but individuals. Some individuals are more thinking while others are more feeling. What if being "more disengaged during social interactions" is a necessary part of being a successful business owner? If some people are wired that way and we all benefit from that persons contribution to business, is that bad? This is another example where Piff's starts from the assumption regarding some ideal human behavioral state. Regarding his mentioning that the wealthy are "less generous" I will point you to a graph below and you can make up your own mind. The differences are actually quite small.


In the next paragraph, Piff mentions 5 more studies damning greed, which I've already discussed above. Just two points here: one, he again and again appeals to ethics, but doesn't mention any foundation of ethics. For example, what if the self interest of the wealthy leads to an overall improvement in the lives of the general population, but also an increase in inequality? Certainly Marxists and classical liberals will differ greatly on the answer to this. Piff wants to start from the assumption "self interest is bad" as FACT and build on that. But rather than being fact, it is instead a highly contentious and debatable contention.

My discussions so far are based on introductory material in this study. I have not begun to comment on the studies themselves. But, I think it's important to see that Piff's paper so far is very opinion based which leads me to believe the study is likely to find exactly what he was looking for.

In the first study, observers stood at a busy intersection and determined when drivers "cut off" other drivers and correlated that to to "vehicle status". I find numerous problems with this study: First, the study assumes that "vehicles are reliable indicators of a person's social rank and wealth". While this may be generally true, I've also found that the wealthy often don't drive high end cars and that poor do. Piff again makes sweeping assumptions about individuals. "Cut off" in this study appears to mean "did not follow right-of-way guidelines". This is certainly a judgement call to some extent. Piff mentions that the observers were "blind to the hypotheses of the study", however this could be problematic. Isn't it possible that there is a tendency for left-leaning Berkeley students to be biased here? They were "blind to the hypotheses" but then asked to tell us "when the rich people cut off other drivers". Call me suspicious, especially given Piff's other tendencies.

Piff makes a few assumptions in this study I'm not comfortable with. One is that San Francisco traffic laws represent some ideal ethical approach to driving. Is it possible that some believe in these standards more than others? To Piff this behavior is "unethical". But others might simply say it shows lack of patience. Additionally, perhaps a lack of patience correlates with other behaviors that make for successful business owners, entrepreneurs and capitalists. Piff again paints a narrow, opinion-based set of acceptable behaviors.

Another flaw that is exposed here is the tendency for Piff to take these somewhat mundane behaviors and make broad assumptions from them. Is it really true that someone who is in more of a rush at an intersection would also, for example, do nothing if they saw someone in trouble at the side of the road? PIff does not mention this nuance, and I'm left with having to think he believes this to be true.

For example, in another study, students are playing a game of monopoly. Some students are given an advantage that allows them to win. From this, Piff simply expects us to accept that the same would be true no matter how much wealth is involved or the situation over all. You can find a Ted talk video from Piff discussing the monopoly study here:


In that study, there is a point where some video of the students is shown where Piff claims the winning students are being "mean". You can find a transcript here:


I find Piff's words and the monopoly game very difficult to reconcile. Piff finds it "rude" and apparently unacceptable that the winning students act happier, more outgoing and "eat more pretzels" than the losing players. "Rude" to Piff is making the following statements:

I have money for everything. You owe me 24 dollars. You're going to lose all your money soon. I have so much money, it takes me forever. I'm going to buy out this whole board. You're going to run out of money soon. I'm pretty much untouchable at this point.

Not only must we accept Piff's system of ethics, but we must also believe that a game of monopoly is predictive of more important ethical decisions. In fact, Piff makes the following statement:

"Now this game of Monopoly can be used as a metaphor for understanding society and its hierarchical structure"

I find the above statement to be, at best, ridiculous and at worst, a condemnation of Piff as a researcher in his field of study.

I have to admit, that's as far as I went in reviewing this study. Finding it flawed at nearly every turn, I do not think it worthwhile to read and comment on it fully, and this write up is getting a bit long anyway. And Frankly, I find it morally reprehensible that citizens of California and San Francisco had to pay for this.

  • Some titles would give this answer more structure and make it easier to read and digest. Cheers Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 16:51
  • The game Monopoly in it's earlier "Landlord's Game" incarnation was designed to be a sort of didactic satire by demonstration of late 19th century capitalism, where players meant to learn by osmosis that, like Wargames, "the only way to win, in not to play at all". So certainly Monopoly has been used as metaphor for over a century. You could argue that Piff's choice of metaphors is tautological however.
    – agc
    Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 11:48

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