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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Apr 10, 2013 - 9:54:41 AM

Ethics and wealth: is there a link?
By Steve Ferber
Apr 10, 2013 - 9:38:37 AM

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Apparently so, according to a series of seven studies that found that people who have the most act the worst.  
Researchers, funded in part of the National Science Foundation, explored whether upper class vs. lower class individuals were most likely to: break the law while driving, take valued goods from others, lie during negotiations, cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior in a work setting. In each case, wealthier individuals acted the worst.  
Why?  Explained lead researcher Paul Piff of UC Berkeley, as quoted in the at “The relative privilege and security enjoyed by upper-class individuals give rise to independence from others and a prioritization of the self and one’s own welfare over the welfare of others--what we call ‘greed,’” and greed, the researchers explained “is a robust determinant of unethical behavior.” The report’s authors noted: “Plato and Aristotle deemed greed to be at the root of personal immorality, arguing that greed drives desires for material gain at the expense of ethical standards.”
Piff told “If you occupy these higher echelons, you start to see yourself as more entitled, and develop a heightened self-focus . . .. Your social environment is likely more buffered against the impact of your actions, and you might not perceive the risks of your behavior because you are better resourced, you have the money for lawyers and so on.”   
Joining Piff in the research were Daniel M. Stancato, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley and Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto.
Here’s a look at the research, conducted both in the field and in the lab.  
Who’s more aggressive on the road?  
Researchers created two scenarios to test whether people who drive more expensive cars take more liberties on the road  (the PNAS report noted: “ . . . vehicles are reliable indicators of a person’s social rank and wealth”).  In one study, observers stood near a busy four-way intersection (stop signs on each side) and recorded whether drivers cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection without waiting their turn (the researchers controlled for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age). In a second study, observers recorded who was more likely to cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk.  In both cases, according to the PNAS study, upper-class drivers were “significantly more likely” (based on statistical variation) to cut off other vehicles and drive through the crosswalk.
Would you take the candy?
In this study, participants were presented with a jar of individually wrapped candies, to see how much they would take. They were told that the candy was for children in a nearby laboratory, “but you are free to take some if you would like.” Before they were given this directive, participants were “primed” by having them compare their station in life with others. Explained the PNAS report: “Central to our hypothesis, participants in the upper-class rank condition took more candy” (twice as much, in fact) “that would otherwise go to children . . . than did those in the lower-rank condition.”
In a job negotiation, would you reveal critical data?   
In the next study, participants assumed the role of a boss and were asked to negotiate a salary with a job candidate. Each participant was fed information about the job, including the fact that the job was about to be eliminated. What did the researchers find?  That a person’s attitude toward greed (based on two independent measures) was directly related to how truthful they were in the negotiation. In other words, those who had the most positive attitudes toward greed were less likely to tell the candidate that the job was going to be eliminated.  
Would you inflate your numbers?
To test the link between greed and cheating, participants were asked to report their total score from a series of dice rolls, and were told that the higher their score, the more likely they would be to claim a prize (note: the participants didn’t actually roll the dice, instead they were presented with a series of numbers, that appeared to be random). What happened? No surprise – participants who placed a higher value on greed also lied about their total score. Said the PNAS report: “These results further suggest that more favorable attitudes toward greed among members of the upper class explain, in part, their unethical tendencies.”
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