In 2012, Paul Piff, a psychology professor at Berkeley’s School of Social Ecology (Social Ecology? Puleeez!), conducted some experiments and then published a paper on them. The title of the paper nicely sums up the experiments’ results: “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior”.
Three other social psychologists, from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, intrigued by Piff’s findings, conducted follow-up experiments, whose results were recently published, which indicated that the poor were just as likely to behave unethically as the rich. The difference was that while the unethical behavior of the rich tended to benefit the rich themselves, the unethical behavior of the poor generally was for the benefit of others.
Here is the abstract of the Illinois professors’ paper:
Are the rich more unethical than the poor? To answer this question, the current research introduces a key conceptual distinction between selfish and unethical behavior. Based on this distinction, the current article offers 2 novel findings that illuminate the relationship between social class and unethical behavior. First, the effects of social class on unethical behavior are not invariant; rather, the effects of social class are moderated by whether unethical behavior benefits the self or others. Replicating past work, social class positively predicted unethical behavior; however, this relationship was only observed when that behavior was self-beneficial. When unethical behavior was performed to benefit others, social class negatively predicted unethical behavior; lower class individuals were more likely than upper class individuals to engage in unethical behavior. Overall, social class predicts people’s tendency to behave selfishly, rather than predicting unethical behavior per se. Second, individuals’ sense of power drove the effects of social class on unethical behavior. Evidence for this relationship was provided in three forms. First, income, but not education level, predicted unethical behavior. Second, feelings of power mediated the effect of social class on unethical behavior, but feelings of status did not. Third, two distinct manipulations of power produced the same moderation by self-versus-other beneficiary as was found with social class. The current theoretical framework and data both synthesize and help to explain a range of findings in the social class and power literatures.
(My italics. Fairly free of jargon – except for the last sentence, in which the collective noun “literature” is supplied with a superfluous plural “s”. . . just in case. I have encountered the word “musics” too.)
The basic conclusion that these social psychologists drew from their experiments is that somehow (and that is the question they are puzzling over) because they are rich, the rich are more unethical (Piff) and more selfish (the boys from Illinois). They wonder, how has the possession of wealth encouraged these anti-social traits?
Is not it obvious that it is because they are more unethical and selfish that the rich are rich?
Let’s imagine a psychological experiment with rats. A bunch of rats in a cage are fed from a communal dish. Certain rats are more aggressive than others and they consistently get to eat more than do other, less aggressive, rats. Consequently, the more aggressive rats are fatter than the less aggressive ones. The scientists conducting the experiment come to the conclusion that being fatter makes rats more aggressive. Why is that? they wonder. One can only hope, for their sakes, that they already have tenure.
What the rich-are-selfish-and-poor-are-unselfish experiments prove is nothing more than common sense. If you’re a selfish person, you are more likely to accumulate wealth than if you are an unselfish person. Sure, there are exceptions. An unselfish person with special skills or special luck can become wealthy, just as a selfish person who is inept or unlucky can be poor. (An aggressive rat which is slow on its feet might get to the food late and an unaggressive rat which has worked out a better route to the food might get to it sooner.) However, the overall results of the experiments speak for themselves.
So, here is the question: Why did the social psychologists deliberately, or as a knee-jerk reaction, completely ignore the possibility that the degree of selfishness of the subjects of their experiments might not have been an effect of their economic class, but instead might have been a difference in personalities, in traits developed from childhood (nurture) or even earlier (nature)?
I don’t have a clear answer. I suspect it has something to do with politics (ingrained capitalism), political correctness (one can’t go around saying some people are innately selfish and some innately unselfish) and the classic difficulty in drawing conclusions about observed phenomena, which must be especially troublesome in the area of psychology, in which the observer is nothing less than another specimen of the observed.