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One of the hot topics in the presidential campaign is the role of the wealthy in American society. In these debates, UC Berkeley psychology postdoctoral fellow Paul Piff has become a bit of a media darling for his research about how the rich really are different from you and me. Piff doesn’t paint a pretty picture. The rich are, in his words, less compassionate, less altruistic, and less disposed to ethical decision making.

Piff has published or been quoted in media such as the New York Times, National Public Radio, the Economist, and the philanthropy-industry trade newspaper Chronicle of Philanthropy. A profile of Piff that appeared in New York Magazine noted that, at as a mere thirty-year-old academic, Piff has already become “semi-famous” for an article published earlier this year (“Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior”).

In that article, Piff and his coauthors report on several tests of whether upper-class individuals are more prone to unethical behavior. They consistently found (surprise!) that upper-class individuals were less ethical than lower-class individuals. Upper-class individuals were, for example, more likely to say they would swipe a ream of paper from their office, fail to point out to a professor that he had mistakenly marked incorrect answers as correct on an exam, and fail to disclose in a job interview with a candidate who states he’s looking for employment stability that the position is slated to be eliminated in six months, and they were less likely to yield to pedestrians (the article includes a photo of a BMW cutting off a pedestrian in a crosswalk).

They conclude:

Is society’s nobility in fact its most noble actors? Relative to lower-class individuals, individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically in both naturalistic and laboratory settings. . . . Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata. As our findings suggest, the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want [sic] associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing. Unethical behavior in the service of self-interest that enhances the individual’s wealth and rank may be a self-perpetuating dynamic that further exacerbates economic disparities in society.

Piff’s research plays perfectly into the caricatures of the “one percent” or the people who supposedly think of themselves as “makers, not takers.” It’s highly relevant at the moment in this election when we are talking what different classes know about one another.

We’ve all know the well-to-do people who treat others like peons. My favorite personal such story: when I was a graduate teaching assistant at Duke, a privileged student called me at home one evening. When I said that he hadn’t called at a convenient time, he replied “It’s okay, I’m going to take only a few minutes of your time.”

I do worry that Piff’s research is on to something: the kind of isolation experienced in “super zips” -- neighborhoods of highly educated and wealthy people -- may make people less sensitive to needs of others, and especially of others from different backgrounds and with fewer advantages. Indeed, children raised in super zips are just the sort that go to Berkeley and are studied in Piff’s psychology laboratory.

But I’m discomfited by the “gotcha!” character of Piff’s work -- which seems to delight in providing “scientific” evidence for what many suspect: that those rich bastards really are bastards. Is there any group other than the wealthy who could be labeled as “unethical” without raising hackles? Imagine the reaction if someone published an article “Lower Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior” (just ask University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus, whose unpopular research was subjected to an official university investigation).

And I’m concerned about the implications of Piff’s research: if upper-class citezens are deemed less ethical than other citizens, government may be justified in measures that deal with those “unethical” people by tax measures and other policies to address the fact that those greedy people can’t be counted on to do their fair share.

Piff’s research presents, at best, a very partial picture. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 argues that those of higher class typically have at least some virtues, like industriousness and community engagement, that are increasingly rare in those of lower class. We might find that different virtues are more characteristic of some social groups than others. It’s simply not possible to sum up the higher (or lower) social classes as “unethical” or without virtue.

Piff purports to offer “scientific” evidence that those of higher social class are more likely to be unethical people. It’s easy to understand why this garners lots of media attention. But the characteristic qualities of various groups in society are more subtle and complex than his analysis suggests -- and, in the last analysis, we must remember than only an individual, not any class as a whole, can be just or unjust.

1 thought on “Are the rich unethical?”

  1. Mark says:

    A couple of observations, first, I wonder if Dr. Piff has read Pascal. Selfishness, envy, greed…dare I say sin…is ubiquitous as part of the human condition.

    Second, it is my experience that BMWs are not the only ones that run red lights. So do ’94 Chevys, but that judgment isn’t “scientific” and therefore not acceptable as “public” knowledge.

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