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Opinion: Why do rich people lie, cheat and steal more than those on low incomes?

Seven experiments produced similar results leading researchers to conclude that higher social class predicts unethical behaviour, writes Diarmuid Pepper.

Diarmuid Pepper

DID YOU EVER get the feeling that people driving fancy, expensive cars are more aggressive on the road, more domineering or that they think they own the road?

Well, what if I told you that isn’t just a ‘feeling’ – there is a significant body of research to support the idea that people driving expensive cars are more inconsiderate on the road.

Researchers at the University of California in Berkeley monitored motorist behaviour at a pedestrian crossing in California.

It is illegal for cars in California to not stop for a pedestrian at a zebra crossing but half of the drivers in expensive cars broke that law and didn’t stop for their fellow citizens who were waiting to cross the road. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing in that survey is that the very oldest and least expensive vehicles were classified as ‘beater cars’ – In Ireland we would call them ‘bangers’.

Every single one of the people driving a banger stopped at the pedestrian crossing.

In another experiment researchers sat a jar of individually wrapped sweets in front of a group of people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. The participants were explicitly told that the individually wrapped sweets were for children in a nearby laboratory but that they could take some if they wanted.  

Were rich people more willing to take sweets meant for children? Of course, they were. Rich people took twice as many sweets as the people from the lower income groups.

Seven experiments produced similar results leading researchers to conclude that higher social class predicts unethical behaviour.

In another study, people partook in a game of chance. They were asked to roll a computer simulated dice 5 times. Participants were asked to tally up their own scores and present them to the supervisor – there was a $50 cash prize for the highest score.

But the game was programmed so that participants got a maximum score, that meant that anyone reporting a score of more than 12 was cheating.

Not only were rich people more likely to cheat. People earning more than €130,000 a year were four times more likely to cheat than someone earning €14,000 a year.

Rich people were also less generous than those on low incomes. 

A group of people were each given $10 and asked if they would like to give some of that money away to a total stranger.

People who earned €14,000 a year gave 44% more money to strangers than people who earned over €130,000 a year.

That is in line with the results of numerous other studies which have repeatedly shown that people on low incomes give proportionately more to charity than rich people do.

Another study provided some insight into people’s inability to understand the nature of their privilege.

The participants played monopoly but the game was rigged. At the beginning of the game, a coin was flipped and the winner of that coin-flip was given twice as much monopoly money and was also allowed two rolls of the dice instead of one.

Of course, the participant who started out with twice as much money and also got to roll the dice twice on each turn eventually won the game.

You might expect the winner to be gracious in victory since they were afforded such a privileged starting position.

But the privileged players weren’t graceful at all, instead, they routinely bragged about their wealth and became fairly insufferable throughout the game. 

Worse than that – after the game when they were asked why they think they won, most of them spoke of their brilliant tactics, their finesse at the game of monopoly and their daring moves.

This rigged game was played by more than a hundred different pairs and only a handful of the winners acknowledged that it was the flip of a coin that caused them to win the game. This was despite having been given incredible advantages over the other player. 

This game of monopoly is a microcosm of life itself. In the rigged monopoly game, a flip of a coin determined that one player had more money and opportunities over their opponent. In life, the natural lottery of birth dishes out its resources in the same unfair way.

Much like in the rigged monopoly game, the people who benefit from the lottery of birth rarely acknowledge that this is so.

Your income is determined by your parents’ income and social class is perpetuated by a multitude of structures from good addresses to parent’s social contacts, financial backing, grinds and private education.

But instead of recognising the fact that they have been handed so many glided opportunities in life those born rich often act like the victors of the rigged monopoly game.

Far from being aware of the advantages they have had in life – they think that they succeed because they are the smartest, the hardest working or the most determined.

But why are they more likely to cheat, lie and to cut off pedestrians? And why are they less likely to give to charity?

It may be in part because they are cut off from the reality of poverty – living in an upper-class bubble. But primarily the researchers found that greed is actually viewed more favourably in upper-class communities.

“We reason that increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritise self-interest over others’ welfare and perceive greed as positive and beneficial, which in turn gives rise to increased unethical behaviour,” the researchers concluded. 

Diarmuid Pepper is a freelance journalist and formerly a teacher of philosophy and religious studies

 

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