In this week’s PNAS, researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Toronto tackle a topic that is bound to spark controversy. I’ll let the title speak for itself: “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.” The paper describes the results of seven studies—two field studies and five experimental tests—that sought to explore how socioeconomic status (SES) correlates with behavior that most of us would consider ethical.
Drivers of big expensive cares are more likely to be jerks than people with cheap cars. Nice to see ‘proof’ of what we knew.
More likely to steal, to cheat and to lie.
What I always want to see in these types of studies are the error bars and statistics. Are the populations of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ sharply divided into two groups by the studies or is there overlap? How many people and how many cars, for example, would help get a feeling for this.
And how easy is it to adjust the behavior?
Unfortunately, the paper is behind a pay wall. So I went online to look for it and found it from one of the authors. I’ll have to look at it in more detail.
UPDATE: I’ve looked at the paper more. First, it has a pre-arranged editor. One of the things PNAS does is allow its members to oversee the review process. This is different than other journals where the editorial process is mostly unknown to the submittors. While not a death blow, PNAS has had a history of some very odd papers and sometimes this was due to the editorial process.
So, while PNAS is actually a very good journal it has had some previous problems. It has done a lot to clean this up but it is something to just keep an eye on.
I’m going to be very skeptical of this paper, especially based on the huge PR its publication has entailed. For example, they had people grade cars on a scale of 1-5 (poor to wealthy) and then grade their driving behavior. They did this twice but there are no error bars anywhere in the publication so I am a little leery of not only the grading mechanism but also the choice of intersections, reproducibility in other cities than San Francisco, etc.
Just one possible example – as I mentioned above – they may just have chosen one intersection where a lot of jerks with expensive cars just happened to live. There may not be any correlation to wealth at all here. Why not go to an intersection in a rich residential area of town and an intersection in a poor residential area.? That way the types of cars used are not as important.
The other sociological studies seem off in similar ways. WHile I am not an expert, I really do not feel that this is a definitive paper on the issue, no matter how the media tries to spin it.