Feb. 27, 2012 -- People who consider themselves upper class may not always act all that classy, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In seven different experiments, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto demonstrated that members of the "upper class" were more likely than those farther down the economic and social ladder to engage in unethical behavior, including taking candy meant for children.
"If rules are not enforced, upper class people are more likely to break them," says researcher Paul Piff, a PhD candidate in Berkeley's psychology department.
How someone behaves may have more to do with a person's situation in life than the intrinsic quality of the person. "Studies like this show how inequality shapes people's behavior. Status has a surprising effect on how you view the world," Piff says.
Piff and his colleagues arranged experiments both in the lab and out in the field to test their hypothesis that upper class status would both make people more likely to disregard others' welfare and to act in ways that further their own self-interest.
In the first experiment, they observed that people driving expensive cars were more likely to cut off other drivers at an intersection than those driving less luxurious vehicles.
In the second experiment, research assistants were tasked with attempting to cross an intersection to see if they would be cut off by an oncoming car. Once again, the type of car predicted the result. Drivers of more expensive automobiles failed to yield to pedestrians more often than other drivers.
Piff says that the make, age, and appearance of a car is a reliable indicator of the driver's wealth and social status, though he acknowledges that it's not unheard of for people to buy a car that's beyond their means.
"That's a potentially [limiting] factor," he says, "but we don't think there are enough poor people buying Lexuses to really sway the results."
Social psychologist Nicole M. Stephens, who was not involved in Piff's research, says the mixture of experiments enhances the value of the study.
"One strength of this research is that it examines behavior in real world settings as well as in the laboratory," says Stephens, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "This research highlights how experiences in different social class contexts can have a powerful impact on our everyday behavior and interactions with others."
The group defined as upper class behaved no better in the laboratory. In one experiment, 129 undergraduates were asked to rank their own position on the social scale relative to others.
Shortly after they were dismissed, but not before, the experimenters told them that they could take candy from a jar on their way out, even though that candy was really meant for children. Those who labeled themselves upper class took more candy than anyone else.
In another experiment, 195 adults were told to report their score following a "random" roll of five six-sided dice. The fix was in, though. Everybody received a score of 12. However, that was not the score reported by many of the upper class. Piff says that some reported scores were as high as 30, the highest score possible. Many more reported scores in the 20s.
In a final experiment, Piff and his team found that encouraging the attitude that "greed is good" primes both upper and lower class people to misbehave.
"If you can make lower class people endorse that value, they are just as likely to behave unethically," says Piff. "If you can change beliefs about greed, you can change behaviors. In theory you could stress the negative features of greed and reduce unethical tendencies."
Psychologist and George Mason University professor of education Martin Ford, PhD, is impressed by Piff's study.
"It is particularly compelling when the same basic phenomenon is demonstrated using a wide variety of experimental methods," says Ford, who reviewed the study for WebMD. "The ability to justify and dismiss transgressive conduct as 'an exception' or 'not applicable' to one's self-concept of responsibility is the key to making an unethical choice even thinkable."
Piff says that there is nothing wrong with self-interest in appropriate situations.
"Self-interest makes you want to go to work and feed your family," he says. "It is good for competition and innovation, but you must play within the rules."