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  1. Wealth
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February 28, 2012

The Wealthy Are More Selfish Than the Poor… Or Not

By Spear's

The Occupy London movement may have been evicted from St Paul’s last night, but when it comes to their views on the rich they can now claim to have science on their side ’ sort of

by Sophie McBain

The Occupy London movement may have been evicted from St Paul’s last night, but when it comes to their views on the rich they can now claim to have science on their side – sort of. Psychologists at the University of California have concluded, on the basis of ‘seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods’, no less, that ‘upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.’

The first two studies of ‘unethical behaviour’ centred on traffic offences. Drivers of newer, flashier cars (an indicator of class, the authors say) were more likely than other to ‘behave unethically… while driving.’ Their moral failings? ‘Upper class’ drivers were more likely to cut up other drivers at crossroads, and less likely to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross the road. Let’s hope that cars are a more reliable indicator of class in the US than they are in the UK, where blue-blooded Brits are as likely to be spotted in clapped-out 4x4s as shiny convertibles.

Further studies aimed to show that the upper classes behave no more admirably off-road. One experiment sought to ‘activate higher or lower social class mindsets’ before inviting participants to help themselves to sweets usually reserved for children. Those ‘primed’ to think of themselves as upper-class took more sweets than the others, which the authors say ‘served as our measure of unethical behavior because taking candy would reduce the amount that would otherwise be given to children.’

In short, according to their experiment, it only takes a short motivational talk on just how high a person’s social status is to transform them into an acquisitive monster, a rampaging rich person who will stop at nothing to satisfy their sugary cravings. Or could something different be at work? Could it be that once convinced by the experts at the University of California that they should behave as though they are upper-class, the newly privileged decide that the best way to demonstrate their social standing is by gorging themselves silly on boiled sweets, so certain are they that you can only be truly upper-class if you show a casual disregard for children’s snacks?

There are plenty of other experiments that illustrate that the rich are unethical. The upper-classes have a greater tendency to cheat at dice games. And, when pretending to be employers, the upper-classes are more likely to lie to potential job candidates when negotiating a salary.

<p> The reason for this ‘unethical’ behaviour, the authors conclude, lies in differing attitudes towards greed. They believe this because they conducted another study in which they asked volunteers to write down three ways in which greed could be beneficial. Having been ‘primed’ into thinking that greed is good, lower-class individuals were just as ‘unethical’ as their upper-class counterparts and both gave similar responses regarding their propensity to engage in ‘unethical behaviour’ at work such as stealing cash and overcharging customers.

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The subtext of this report, then, is that if the rich deserve moral disapprobation for their unethical behaviour, pity the poor, for they are too stupid to be unethical! If only we could explain to the poor that not stopping for pedestrians could speed up their journey time, they might drive more inconsiderately. They might cheat at dice games too, if only they would realise that it could improve their chances of winning.

Of course, if these experiments leave you unconvinced, the authors of the report have some pretty important people endorsing their findings. ‘Historical observations lend credence to this idea [that greater resources among the upper-classes leads to unethical behaviour]’, they write. ‘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.”’ If you don’t recognise the quote, the footnote will guide you to The Holy Bible, Matthew 19:23-24.

How could we ever doubt their findings?

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