Study shows rich people are less ethical

It’s pretty funny to see the headline “Wealthy More Likely to Lie, Cheat: Researchers” on a news site owned by and named after the very wealthy Mike Bloomberg. Who knew Bloomberg was so self-critical and introspective?

New research, written up in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, attempts to answer the question “are society’s most noble actors found within society’s nobility?” And the answer found is no. The pursuit of self-interest is a “fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” The Bloomberg article reports that the study found the “wealthy were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to increase their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work.”

One of the researchers, Paul Piff, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of California, explained

“It’s not that the rich are innately bad, but as you rise in the ranks — whether as a person or a nonhuman primate — you become more self-focused…. upper-class individuals are more self-focused, they privilege themselves over others, and they engage in self- interested patterns of behavior.”

So, what is to be done? Piff says,

“You can change that by reminding upper-class people of the needs of others. That may not be their default, but have them do it is sufficient to increase their patterns of altruistic behavior…It might be as simple as not only stressing individual performance, but the value of cooperation and improving the welfare of others… That goes a long way.”

So, if Occupy Wall Street is reminding upper class people of the needs of others, they’re actually doing the 1% a favor; providing them with much needed empathy and altruism training… for free!


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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  • Smiley

    The argument is wrong.

    It is saying that rich people are more likely to cheat and lie.

    Very likely. My quibble is with the way of putting it.

    Namely, the conclusion could have been (should have been?): a lier and cheat is more likely to become rich.

    That, I can believe.

    Another example of arriving at the right conclusions through wrong arguments. Basketball makes you tall? No – tall people are more likely to become professional basketball players.

    • Robert

      Exactly. The study also says the rich become more self-focused as they rise through the ranks. I’m pretty sure they were already self-focused before they got rich.You almost have to be if you plan on making big bucks.

    • Sam Lindsay-Levine

      I don’t think your analysis is consistent with the research; Piff claimed to see the effect even when simply psychologically priming undergraduates to think of themselves as wealthy or poor.

  • uclabodyimage

    Holy crap. What editor approved that god awful stigmatizing title for this feministing post? How is it acceptable to imply that an entire group is unethical? If the results had come out the other way, would you have run the title “Study shows poor people are less ethical”? Ridiculous. The title wasn’t trying to be ironic or simply recapping the language of the article (and even if it was, there is no excuse for simply regurgitating that language instead of challenging it).

    Along those lines – I’ve said this before repeatedly on this blog, but it really is critical to get a copy of the actual study when making a post about the study and to have a social scientist with strong methods expertise on the editorial board. It’s a continual problem on the site. In general, news reporting of science studies is reliably awful and can’t simply be trusted.

    In this case, what were the effect sizes? From their past related research, the effect sizes were pretty modest. For example, people who are one standard deviation above the mean (84th percentile) in social class are only .20 standard deviations below the mean in generous giving during a simulated economics game. In other words, a person’s social class is only weakly related to generosity and ethical behavior. Knowing a person’s social class provides only a weak prediction regarding where they will fall in terms of generous or ethical behavior. There is tremendous error in the prediction. Who is the sample?

    The past studies were on college students. So “rich” or “higher social class” is rather ambiguous in that setting. The rich folks in the sample aren’t CEOs. The current study relies on craigslist volunteers and college students and other internet samples.

    I think the results are very interesting, but I dislike the way that the post frames the findings. The “rich” are described as a homogenous unethical outgroup. That’s a bad approach to endorse, whether the perceived outgroup is rich, black, asian, white, men, women, etc. It’s something we usually blame on conservatives, but treating individuals as representative of their group and treating perceived outgroups as homogenous rather than collections of individuals with varying experiences and attitudes is something we all do.

    Their previous work:

    • Sam Lindsay-Levine

      it really is critical to get a copy of the actual study when making a post about the study and to have a social scientist with strong methods expertise on the editorial board. It’s a continual problem on the site. In general, news reporting of science studies is reliably awful and can’t simply be trusted.

      I could not agree more.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Well, pretty much every site I’ve seen this news story on has worded their headline along those lines, given that that was the study’s findings (even Mayor Mikey’s site bills it as “Wealthy More Likely To Lie, Cheat”, which juxtaposed with his name and photo on the sidebar, provides endless hours of Brooklynite laffs.)

    Now of course, we can always argue whether those findings themselves are accurate, or if the study methods – from what I read elsewhere, largely a number of anonymous surveys, with a really iffy experiment with a jar of candy – are all that empirical.

  • Lauren Guenther

    People are people and should be valued as such. End of story. I don’t see how this is productive.

  • Jacqueline Hentzen

    I’d ask about ‘Is this really accurate’ except everyone else has already done that.

    My question is about the solution: Remind them about the needs of others. Um… THEY DON’T FUCKING CARE! That’s what ‘Less-ethical’ means. Hell, I’ll say it in much plainer language: The studies (true or not) are describing the upper class, the 0.001% of wealth, the uber-rich as SOCIOPATHS. They don’t SEE other people as people with needs, and if they do, they just say ‘Well, it doesn’t matter: They aren’t me’.

    …Holy shit, I might have a topic for my next blog post…

  • daria

    hahaha my comrade and i were laughing at this yesterday. it’s like now we have scientific proof to back up what we’ve been saying all along. can’t argue with science.