Does Being Rich Make One Unethical?

An interesting study that demonstrates a tendency towards unethical behavior among the rich people:

Four lab tests . . . revealed those who considered themselves upper class had greater tendencies to make unethical decisions. This included unrightfully stealing something, lying in a negotiation, cheating at a game of chance to boost their chances of winning cash or endorsing unethical behavior at work, such as stealing cash, receiving bribes and overcharging customers. “This isn’t just a case of upper socioeconomic people being more willing to admit that they would be unethical,” Piff said. All these lab findings held true regardless of participants’ ages, gender, ethnicity, religiosity and political orientation. “I was surprised at the consistency and strength of all these effects — upper-class individuals often acted unethically three to four times more often than lower-class individuals,” Piff told LiveScience.

What I don’t like about this study is that it confuses cause and effect. It seems far more likely to me that, rather than people being more unethical because they are rich, it is simply easier to become rich if you are not weighed down by many scruples.

Confucius said, “In a society that is ruled by law, it is shameful to be poor and unsuccessful. But in a society that is ruled by lawlessness, it is shameful to be rich and successful.”

10 thoughts on “Does Being Rich Make One Unethical?

  1. Yeah there’s always lots of money to be had if you don’t give two shits how you get it or who you screw over. Unethical people get rich, stay unethical to get richer. Thank you, Science, for telling me something I could learn from reading about John D. Rockefeller and Michael Milken.

    Reminds me of a quote from Lucky Luciano, just about the biggest mob boss America has ever seen. [Interestingnote: In exceedingly rare form for an underworld tycoon, Luciano died not of violence, but of a heart attack in his autumn years.] The quote goes something like, “If I had to do it all again, I’d go straight. It’s just as hard to make a crooked million as it is an honest million.”


  2. @P.rhoeas

    I like Capone’s quote even better.

    You can get so much more with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word.


    I guess you have to define rich. Chris Rock pretty much sums it up with this one.

    … if Bill Gates woke up tomorrow with Oprah money, he would jump out the fucking window …


  3. Titfortat :You can get so much more with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word.

    As proven by the great Vito Corleone when he went round asking the landlord kindly whether he minded seeing his way to extending the widow’s credit just a little longer.


  4. I would have to look at the actual studies before I gave them any credit. For instance, it was reported that the socio-economic class of drivers was guessed by the appearance of the car. This seems pretty tenuous to me. (I drive a small, old car. I could drive a more expensive one, but I just don’t care that much.) There is also the difficulty of assessing whether the actions of someone performing an experiment accurately reflect how they act outside the experiment. There’s also the issue of confounding variables (is that the term I want?) Maybe the “rich” people they studied were just better educated, and what was really being measured was the likelihood of educated people to cheat. And if they controlled for education by just getting people who inherited their wealth…. These social studies are difficult.


    1. “Piff and his colleagues used a variety of measures to gauge the participants’ socioeconomic status, such as education levels, annual income (which ranged from about $16,000 to $150,000), and the participants’ own perception of their social standing. Regardless of the measure used, however, higher-status people tended to behave in ways that served their own self-interest.”


      1. Yeah – I read that study, and it’s pretty much nothing more than the self-fulfilling prophecy type experiment. Start with a conclusion, work backwards. Totally unconvinced.


  5. “Confucius said, “In a society that is ruled by law, it is shameful to be poor and unsuccessful. But in a society that is ruled by lawlessness, it is shameful to be rich and successful.””

    What about a society that is ruled by law, except for the rich? This is the situation in the US.


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