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Are the wealthy less ethical?

New research suggests that wealthy people think greed is good and are more inclined to run roughshod over others.

By Karen Datko Mar 5, 2012 6:53PM

Does being wealthy mean you're less inclined to behave ethically? New research suggests that's the case.


From the abstract of "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: (Post continues below.)

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

"Elevated wealth status seems to make you want even more, and that increased want leads you to bend the rules or break the rules to serve your self-interest," study lead author Paul Piff told


The researchers explored the question from several angles. Some examples:

  • Drivers of higher-status vehicles were less likely to yield as they should to other cars at a four-way stop. "About 8% of the drivers in the lowest tier of prestige broke the rules, compared with 30% in the highest," The Wall Street Journal said. Drivers of fancy cars were also less likely to yield to a pedestrian.
  • In other tests, people of wealth were more inclined to agree that they'd steal a ream of paper at work and to cheat at a computer game of dice.

Wired described yet another test:

The fourth experiment probed the underlying dynamics. Test-takers were asked to imagine themselves being very rich or poor, then given an opportunity to take candy from a jar that would next be delivered to children in another lab. Students who'd pretended to be rich took more candy, suggesting that "the experience of higher social class has a causal relationship to unethical decision-making and behavior," wrote Piff's team.

Taking candy from the mouths of babes! What could account for such behavior?


Then again, there may be a simpler explanation: greed. The researchers found that unethical behavior was closely related to positive feelings about greed. Although the connection appeared to be strongest among high-status individuals, even lower-status individuals were more prone to ethical lapses if they felt that greed was good.

Still, the attitude that greed is good was much more prevalent among those who have more money.


Of course, such studies aren't conclusive. For instance, how do we know that the unidentified people driving the high-end cars hadn't bought more car than they could afford -- or were even the owners? Perhaps just the act of driving an expensive car can turn people into jerks.


And maybe, just maybe, the people who look out for their own interests more than those of others are the ones who become rich. It's the old chicken and the egg: Which came first?


Said Wired:

"This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead," said evolutionary psychologist and consumer researcher Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the work.

More on MSN Money:


Mar 6, 2012 3:29PM
The results are not surprising. It only confirms what we already knew.
Mar 6, 2012 4:33PM

No, wealthy people aren't less ethical, most of them don't have any ethics at all.


Next question....Please...

Mar 6, 2012 3:43PM
hell yes they are,look at the banks and wall street,ripping off people and just adding on to their mansions,hope they all get heart attacks from all their bad eating habits !
Mar 6, 2012 4:08PM

"thats a great study... pretend your rich!  and then pretend your poor"  how does a poor person pretend to be rich... to pretend, you have to have an underlieing idea of what to pretend.  i cant pretend to be an alien... i can only pretend to act like the little green men i see in sci fi films..  the other study about "  drivers of "higher status" cars... most people driving 'higher status cars' cannot afford them, are leasing the ride, and most "wealthy people" drive conservative cars.  "the millionaire next door?"  maybe the article should define "wealth"  im sure many thought allen iverson in his masseratis and jewelry was "wealthy"  and then the MSN article about him owing 1 million and found judment against said 1 million creditor. 


im sure most of the "weathly people" in the study were not wealthy at all.  but personifying a status of wealth, while their bank account said far more about their actual situation. 


How many "wealthy people" would sit down for a study like this?  they would probbaly not have the time since they were working to amass more wealth!  another great MSN article that is just flat wrong all the while pushing a class system where the "wealthy," once again we dont know what that means, are complete and utter snobs that would just as soon step on a baby than go to work.  any scientific study that deals with "pretend" is more of a social study on what poor people envision wealth to look like.

Mar 6, 2012 3:40PM
Right. Because EVERYONE knows that all people with money are bad............ Just ask the liberal media or the OWS-ers!
Mar 6, 2012 4:17PM

"Greed is good"


This has always been the motto for American Capitalism. People can delude themselves into sugar-coating this reality, but the fact is that, you are only rich if you are greedy enough to want to be rich. And greed pretty much erase all ethics. Anybody who has ever been a business man knows that you often have to make tough decisions, many of which are morally ambiguous, with some being outright unethical. If you make enough of these decisions, you grow numb to the dilemma of unethical actions, and that's precisely what happens to the wealthy.

Mar 6, 2012 4:54PM
Your post was blocked because it has a hyperlink or appears similar to spam. Please revise your post and try again.


I get this message all the time. I never post hyperlinks or spam. Screw you MSN!

Mar 6, 2012 4:40PM

Ok, so am I to believe all achievers are greedy and evil and the poor and under achievers are pure and good?  Let's abandon evil capitalism and subscribe to alternate economies, then we will not have to worry about the rich greedy among us.  We can all be mediocre.  I have not noticed that all government and all labor is exempt from greed and corruption.  What are some good suggestions as to the how everyone can achieve  the American Dream. 

Mar 6, 2012 4:37PM
I'm sure your typical homeless person is as pure as the driven snow.
Mar 6, 2012 5:16PM
your question answered itself .   So are some in congress who stand with the wealthy to hide them from paying in tax's .
Mar 6, 2012 4:35PM
I just read Shogun357 and almost choked.  He made statements regarding the Kardashians and said Jenner was the only one that showed in morals.  Jenner only had a wife that supported him and after he won the olympics, he dumped her.  I do not call that morals.
Mar 6, 2012 3:46PM
This is such a pile of liberal BS. People "pretending to be wealthy"  took more ? So should I pretend to be a writer or scientist and write a more viable article?
Mar 6, 2012 4:29PM
For MSN, it's easy to find research that furthers their agenda, to say that "most" wealthy people are unethical.  They are anti-capitalist and anti-wealth...ironic?  Unless you have created wealth for yourself as an independent business owner and actually do the hard work, it's easy to point at wealthy people, call the wealthy greedy and then turn around and display another unbecoming trait...envy. 
Mar 6, 2012 5:25PM
I didn't need this study to tell me this. As a small business owner, my partner and I were able to attract a wealthy investor. He is without a doubt, THE most unscrupulous, crass, dishonest and arrogant snob I've ever met in my life! He's living proof that having money does NOT equate to having class.
Mar 6, 2012 5:04PM

ya great point

these people suck and my people dont

anylize something u paraquot (big leboski spellcheck)

Mar 6, 2012 4:48PM
Having worked with and for wealthy (and not so wealthy) people for 40 years, I can tell you unequivocally - the rich are not playing by the same rules.  The "good" wealty simply ignore the rules they find restrictive.  The "bad" rich just make them  up as they go along.  Greed is only one of the seven deadly sins if you don't have it
Mar 6, 2012 5:15PM
That's a rhetorical question right?
Mar 6, 2012 4:28PM
The rich believe in greed.  They also believe in lying and stealing and anything else they can do.  Sounds alot like politicians.
Mar 6, 2012 3:56PM

Apparently George Soraos has hired some "researchers" to produce the results he wants in order to stir up more unrest just before an election.

This type of rablle-rousing class-warfare promotion disguised as "Journalism" is demeaning to the profession.

Propaganda is not reporting.

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