Members of the upper classes are more likely to lie, cheat and even break the law than people from less privileged backgrounds, a study has found.
By John Bingham
In contrast, members of the “lower” classes appeared more likely to display the traditional attributes of a gentleman.
It suggests that the traditional notion of the upper class “cad” or “bounder” could have a scientific basis.
But psychologists at the University of California in Berkeley, who carried out the study, also suggested that the findings could help explain the origins of the banking crisis – with self-confident, wealthy bankers more likely to indulge in reckless behaviour.
The team lead by Dr Paul Piff, asked several groups of people from different social backgrounds to perform a series of tasks designed to identify different traits such as honesty and consideration for others.
Each person was asked a series of questions about their wealth, schooling, social background, religious persuasions and attitudes to money in an attempt to put them into different classes.
The tasks included asking participants to pretend to be an employers conducting a job interview to test whether they would lie or sidestep awkward facts in pay negotiation.
They were told that the job might become redundant within six months but were encouraged conceal this from the interview candidate.
There was also an online game involving rolling dice in which participants they were asked to report their own score, thinking they would be in line for a cash prize for a higher score – and that no one was checking.
Members of another group were given a series of made-up scenarios in which people spoke about doing something unethical at work to benefit themselves and then questioned to assess how likely they were to do likewise.
The scientists also carried out a series of observations at a traffic junction in San Francisco.
Different drivers’ social status was assessed on the basis of what car they were driving as well as visible details such as their age.
Those deemed to be better off appeared more likely to cut up other drivers and less likely to stop for pedestrians.
Overall the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that those from richer or powerful backgrounds appeared greedier, more likely to lie in negotiation and more likely to cheat.
Being in a higher social class – either by birth or attainment – had a “causal relationship to unethical decision-making and behaviour”, they concluded.
Dr Piff concluded that having an elevated social rank were more likely to display “self focused” behaviour patterns than those from more modest backgrounds, were less aware of others, and were less good at identifying the emotions of others.
He said that the findings appeared to bear out the teachings of Aristotle, Plato and Jesus that greed is at the root unethical behaviour.
“On the one hand, lower-class individuals live in environments defined by fewer resources, greater threat and more uncertainty,” he said.
“It stands to reason, therefore, that lower-class individuals may be more motivated to behave unethically to increase their resources or overcome their disadvantage.
“A second line of reasoning, however, suggests the opposite prediction: namely, that the upper class may be more disposed to the unethical.
“Greater resources, freedom, and independence from others among the upper class give rise to self-focused social cognitive tendencies, which we predict will facilitate unethical behaviour.
“Historical observation lends credence to this idea. For example, the recent economic crisis has been attributed in part to the unethical actions of the wealthy.
“Religious teachings extol the poor and admonish the rich with claims like, ‘It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven’.”