Rich vs Poor: Who is more unethical?

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rich poor gap
Inequality has risen faster around the world during the first decade of the 21st century. Photo – ALAMY

Just like ‘Good vs Evil’, the ‘Rich vs Poor’ topic has always stirred a lot of debate, and proven controversial at times. Many of us believe it is because we always view the less-fortunate as weak and helpless, and end up feeling sorry for them, while the general perception of the rich is that they are powerful, heartless and uncompassionate.

With such assumptions in mind, one would expect poor people to hold higher ethical values than those who are on the higher socioeconomic ladder. According to a study consisting of a series of experiments conducted by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, poor were found to be more ethical than their more fortunate counterparts. The findings suggest that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and behave unethically in comparison with the poor.

But why do we always feel sorry for the less fortunate? And why do we always assume that they are good people? Why can’t we give the same benefit of the doubt to rich people? The Californian psychologists used interesting ways to find out answers to these questions.

class war posters
Posters like these have been used by anti-Capitalism activists to spread awareness about the growing rich-poor gap.

If you believe in the notion: “When the rich rob the poor, it’s called business, but when the poor fight back, it’s called violence”, then you are most likely to agree with Paul Piff’s findings.

“Elevated wealth status seems to make you want even more, and that increased want leads you to bend the rules or break the rules to serve your self-interest,” says the lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in psychology at the university.

Seven separate experiments including 1,000 people from all walks of life took part in the study. The scientists analysed a person’s rank in the society measured by wealth, occupational prestige and education.

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.

The studies looked at cutting people off in traffic, cutting off pedestrians, unethical decision-making, taking valuables from others, lying in a negotiation, cheating to increase their chances of winning a prize and endorsing unethical behaviour at work. They even took candy from children.

The results revealed that those who drove expensive cars were more likely to cut off other cars and pedestrians. Wealthy participants were also more likely to admit they would lie during negotiations and cheat in an online game to win $50.

Meanwhile, Stephane Cote, associate professor of organisational behaviour and psychology at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, suggested: “We found a trend that upper-class individuals — people that have the most money, the most income, the best education and the most prestigious job — have a tendency to engage in less ethical behavior.

“This doesn’t mean that every rich person will behave less ethically than any less-rich person. But we found a tendency. So if you look across people in a variety of settings, the higher-class people tend to engage in more unethical behaviour.”

Although Piff insisted that these findings do not show that unethical behaviour is somehow ingrained in people of higher status, the Berkeley academic suggested that small changes in a situation or environment cause people of varying backgrounds to express their instincts and values in different ways.

rich hate poor
Most studies blame greed and apathy as the root cause behind the growing rich-poor gap.

“We’re not saying you should distrust the rich, or the rich are corrupt,” says Piff. “Instead, this highlights the disparities in social environments – that different positions occupied give rise to almost natural tendencies and divergent social values.”


According to a study carried out by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book Outliers, rich people usually come from an environment where they are taught from a young age that they should go for things and ask for what is rightly theirs, therefore, that could be an explanation as to why they behave this way. On the other hand, people from poor backgrounds are not brought up to think this way and surrender easily when they are demanded to do so, Gladwell noted in his book.

But the question is: Why is it more understandable or explainable when poor people engage in the same unethical acts that rich people commit? One explanation provided by the authors of the research is that poor people may be so depressed with circumstances that they may end up taking matters into their own hands and commit unethical acts. Rich people, on the other hand, may resort to the same acts but out of other reasons.

The study suggested that financial security enjoyed by the rich fosters a sense of entitlement and a lack of concern for others. “Affluent people may be more likely to get away with misbehaviour, because they are less supervised at work, for example, and they may be more willing to take ethical risks because they have the resources to bail themselves out – both literally and figuratively – if they get caught,” Paul Piff’s findings noted.

However, the Berkeley psychologist admitted that his study has its own limitations, and that the results cannot be representative of rich people around the world. “We’re not saying you should distrust the rich, or the rich are corrupt,” he explained while adding that it could all boil down to greed.

Study participants, for instance, were more likely to cheat on a dice game or mislead a hypothetical job candidate about an available position if they agreed strongly with a series of greed-related statements, such as “To be a successful person in this society, it is important to make use of every opportunity” and “It is not morally bad to think first of one’s own benefit and not of other people’s.”


ABC News quoted Piff as saying: “We found that it is much more prevalent for people in the higher ranks of society to see greed and self-interest…as good pursuits. This resonates with a lot of current events these days.”

According to Robert Gore Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Alliant International University, in San Francisco, the study findings are not black-and-white. “Class, status, and ethics are all slippery concepts that are difficult to pin down in experiments, even those – like the driving ones – that make use of real-world situations.

“Not everyone who is coded as relatively high social class drives a luxury car,” Gore says. “Luxury car drivers are a subset of the well-to-do, and we all know people who drive cars they can’t really afford.”

Gore added that experiments that test people’s willingness to behave unethically are limited to their day-to-day behaviour. “This study really shows that people who identify as higher social class are more likely to admit unethical behavior,” he says. “It’s not clear whether they actually behave worse or just claim to.”

Piff and his colleagues at the University of Berkeley, California, acknowledged the limitations of the study. However, Piff defended his study and insisted that seven different experiments produced similar results which helps ‘eliminate alternative explanations’. “The pattern held after the researchers took into account factors such as age, sex, ethnicity, and religious and political affiliations, all of which are associated with ethics and values,” the university academic and psychologist concluded in his report. The team’s findings will feature in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s most-cited multidisciplinary scientific serials.

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