UPDATE: Wealth and ethics may not match

Does being wealthy make you unethical? New research suggests it does
[Via Ars Technica]

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.


2 thoughts on “UPDATE: Wealth and ethics may not match

  1. You expect a rational person to take this study seriously? These people assume that if a car is a fancy car, the people are rich. Check the stats on how many cars are repossessed every day in this county. Standing on a street corner in San Francisco and checking the SES of people is just being self-indulgent to get a good grade in a crappy course. And the paper itself by one of the people is not even literate. They try very hard to make it look as if they knew what they were talking about and fail miserable. Somewhere in the “paper” it become evident that they are simply backing up their feelings with false stats and giving scientists a bad name. And some of the comments are even worse.
    I think that MY next paper will have MY study of how poor people are all greedy thieves. I will stand at a intersection and check how many beat-up, old cars cut people off with aggressive driving. And then I will go down to police headquarters to see how many were driving old cars when they were arrested. And that should prove that poor people are all thieves. That is just as good science as this stupid study.

  2. Did anyone read this article. It showed that greed was associated with unethical behavior. Then it showed that greed was associated with social status. When they did linear regression analysis social status fell out i.e. was not associated with unethical behavior.Studies 5 ”… A linear regression model predicting probability of telling the job candidate the truth , social class was no longer significant”; Study 6” …. Predicting cheating behavior, social class was no longer a significant predictor. Study 7 was to encourage positive attitudes toward greed which increased unethical behavior in lower socioeconomic subjects. They did not change socioeconomic class as a variable they changed attitudes toward greed “… greed-is-good prime”
    I am not reinterpreting the study I am quoting their own results and conclusions.
    Certainly there is reason to see greed and wealth as associated. Social status may even encourage greed. There are many studies that show we justify our own behaviors as being ok or ethical. When I am wealthier than most of the people in the world either I am selfish or I have to justify my wealth to see myself as a good person. Most people justify their wealth.
    This study fails to prove or even support that wealth causes unethical behavior. It suggests that greedy people are more likely to be wealthy or have conspicuous wealth (nice cars) and be unethical.

Comments are closed.