Image: Wealthy couple © Digital Vision, Getty Images

My husband and I were waiting for a dinner reservation on the front porch of a Colonial Williamsburg restaurant when another guest, after finding out where we were from, launched into a diatribe about how awful California and Californians were.

The woman, who was from Spokane, Wash., went on and on about her dislike. My husband, a fourth-generation Californian, was genuinely baffled by her vehemence. I grew up in Washington state but had encountered this before. So, I asked in seeming innocence, where in California did you visit? The answer: Anaheim. She was basing her opinion of 37 million people and the nation's third-largest state on a single visit to a theme park.

In much the same way, many of us have opinions about the very rich, and the very poor, even though we may have personally encountered few of either. We may form our views mostly based on what our parents told us, what we see in the news media and the opinions of people we like or admire.

Research sometimes upholds our stereotypes and sometimes contradicts them:

If you believe that the poor are lazy, for example, you might be surprised by Census Bureau statistics showing that the majority of people under the poverty line are too young, too old or too disabled to work.
If you believe the poor are less educated, though, research seems to back you up. Households where the adults have lower levels of education tend to be in lower income brackets, and more likely to move down economically, than households where adults have higher levels of education, Census Bureau statistics show.

All of which brings me to the growing body of research that shows the rich behaving badly. Those who study the psychology of wealth have found the rich seem more likely to be unethical, ungenerous and uncompassionate than people lower on the socio-economic scale.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

One study that got a lot of attention recently was the "luxury car" research, which found that people who drive fancy cars are far less likely to wait their turns at four-way intersections and far more likely to cut off pedestrians who have the right of way.

Luxury cars may not be a perfect proxy for wealth: Plenty of people lease vehicles they can't afford, and some millionaire-next-door types take pride in driving beaters. But the researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto conducted six other studies studying wealth and ethics, with similar results: The wealthier the person, the more likely he or she was to engage in unethical behavior. (One study gauged the propensity to cheat based on the self-reported social class, another the likelihood of taking candy meant for children.)

The researchers knew better than to draw the conclusions that all rich people are corrupt and that all poor people are saints, noting high levels of violent crime in poor areas as well as "notable cases of ethical action among upper-class individuals that greatly benefited the greater good."

"Examples include whistle-blowing by Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, former vice presidents at WorldCom and Enron, respectively, and the significant philanthropy displayed by such individuals as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett," the researchers wrote. "These observations suggest that the association between social class and unethicality is neither categorical nor essential, and point to important boundary conditions to our findings that should be examined in future investigations."

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a professional journal, is just the latest in a series of studies demonstrating that wealthier people may not be as nice as others:

  • A 2006 study by University of Minnesota researchers, "The Psychological Consequences of Money," found that being reminded of money makes people less likely to ask for help or provide help to others.
  • People in elevated social positions were less likely to feel compassion or distress over another person's suffering, according to a 2008 study, led by a University of Amsterdam professor, called "Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others." A study last year by University of California researchers called "Social Class as Culture" came to similar conclusions: that people of lower social classes tended to be more empathetic and more compassionate. The less income and education people had, the researchers said, the more likely they were to be attuned to others.
  • The UC researchers found in an earlier study, "Social Class, Sense of Control and Social Explanation," that people of lower economic and social status felt less in control of their lives than people who were better off. The former were more likely to blame circumstances for events than richer people, who were more likely to explain success as the result of individual effort and failure as the result of individual faults.

All of which paints a picture of the wealthy as selfish, greedy, entitled and out of tune with others. The various researchers floated theories about their conclusions -- among which was the idea that the rich don't need to rely as much on the social contract. That's the connection that says, "I'll look out for you, because I may need you to look out for me."

What concerns me about this research is not that the rich are getting a bad rap. What concerns me, as a personal-finance columnist, is that some people already use their bad opinions of the rich as an excuse not to take care of themselves financially.

If you believe being wealthy makes you greedy or evil, how likely are you to invest in your future and build your net worth? If you feel that getting rich is a matter of luck rather than effort, aren't you far more likely to waste your money on lottery tickets and get-rich-quick schemes than you are to contribute to your 401k?

If money really does make people go bad, and I'm not convinced that it does, then the solution isn't avoiding wealth -- it's avoiding the bad behavior. That means:

As your wealth and income grow, so should your charitable giving. Giving back is a great way to acknowledge your blessings and battle self-centeredness.

  • Remember that no one is self-made. You can enjoy your accomplishments without forgetting that other people had a role in getting you where you are today: the parents who diapered you, the teachers who taught you, the mentors who guided you, the people who cheered you on.
  • Ethics matter. Character is who we are when no one is looking, and it's revealed in how we treat the people around us. If you're religiously inclined, you might reflect on the admonition in Luke 12:48, "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more." If you're not religiously inclined, keep in mind that what goes around, comes around.

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  • The law matters too, by the way. You can make an argument that our justice system works differently for the rich than for the poor, but the vehicle code doesn't care who has the fanciest car. Give pedestrians, and the vehicle on the right, the right of way. 

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.