Media Releases

Upper class more likely to be scofflaws says new research from UC Berkeley and UofT’s Rotman

February 29, 2012

TORONTO, ON –The upper class has a high­er propen­si­ty for uneth­i­cal behav­ior, being more like­ly to believe – as did Gor­don Gekko in the movie “Wall Street” – that “greed is good,” accord­ing to a new study from researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment.

“The increased uneth­i­cal ten­den­cies of upper-class indi­vid­u­als are dri­ven, in part, by their more favor­able atti­tudes toward greed,” said Paul Piff, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy at UC Berke­ley and lead author of the paper pub­lished on Feb­ru­ary 27 in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences. Oth­er coau­thors of the study are UC Berke­ley psy­chol­o­gists Dacher Kelt­ner, Rodol­fo Men­doza-Den­ton and Daniel Stan­ca­to, and Prof. Stéphane Côté of the Rot­man School.

Pif­f’s study is the lat­est in a series of UC Berke­ley schol­ar­ly inves­ti­ga­tions into the rela­tion­ship between socio-eco­nom­ic class and proso­cial and anti­so­cial emo­tions and behav­iors, reveal­ing new infor­ma­tion about class dif­fer­ences dur­ing a time of ris­ing eco­nom­ic ten­sion.

“As these issues come to the fore, our research – and that by oth­ers – helps shed light on the role of inequal­i­ty in shap­ing pat­terns of eth­i­cal con­duct and self­ish behav­ior, and points to cer­tain ways in which these pat­terns might also be changed,” Piff said.

To inves­ti­gate how class relates to eth­i­cal con­duct, the researchers sur­veyed the eth­i­cal ten­den­cies of more than 1,000 indi­vid­u­als of lower‑, mid­dle- and upper-class back­grounds. Vol­un­teers report­ed their social class using the MacArthur Scale of Sub­jec­tive Socioe­co­nom­ic Sta­tus and filled out sur­veys reveal­ing their atti­tudes about unprin­ci­pled behav­iors and greed. They also took part in tasks designed to mea­sure their actu­al uneth­i­cal behav­ior.

In two field stud­ies on dri­ving behav­ior, upper-class motorists were found to be four times more like­ly than the oth­er dri­vers to cut off oth­er vehi­cles at a busy four-way inter­sec­tion and three times more like­ly to cut off a pedes­tri­an wait­ing to enter a cross­walk. Anoth­er study found that upper-class par­tic­i­pants pre­sent­ed with sce­nar­ios of unscrupu­lous behav­ior were more like­ly than the indi­vid­u­als in the oth­er socio-eco­nom­ic class­es to report repli­cat­ing this type of behav­ior them­selves.

Par­tic­i­pants in the fourth study were assigned tasks in a lab­o­ra­to­ry where a jar of can­dy, reserved for vis­it­ing chil­dren, was on hand, and were invit­ed to take a can­dy or two. Upper-class par­tic­i­pants helped them­selves to twice as much can­dy as did their coun­ter­parts in oth­er class­es.

In the fifth study, par­tic­i­pants each were assigned the role of an employ­er nego­ti­at­ing a salary with a job can­di­date seek­ing long-term employ­ment. Among oth­er things, they were told that the job would soon be elim­i­nat­ed, and that they were free to con­vey that infor­ma­tion to the can­di­date. Upper-class par­tic­i­pants were more like­ly to deceive job can­di­dates by with­hold­ing this infor­ma­tion, the study found.

In the sixth study, par­tic­i­pants played a com­put­er­ized dice game, with each play­er get­ting five rolls of the dice and then report­ing his or her scores. The play­er with the high­est score would receive a cash prize. The play­ers did not know that the game was rigged so that each play­er would receive no more than 12 points for the five rolls. Upper-class par­tic­i­pants were more like­ly to report high­er scores than would be pos­si­ble, indi­cat­ing a high­er rate of cheat­ing, accord­ing to the study.

The last study found atti­tudes about greed to be the most sig­nif­i­cant pre­dic­tor of uneth­i­cal behav­ior. Par­tic­i­pants were primed to think about the advan­tages of greed and then pre­sent­ed with bad behav­ior-in-the-work­place sce­nar­ios, such as steal­ing cash, accept­ing bribes and over­charg­ing cus­tomers. It turned out that even those par­tic­i­pants not in the upper class were just as like­ly to report a will­ing­ness to engage in uneth­i­cal behav­ior as the upper-class cohort once they had been primed to see the ben­e­fits of greed, researchers said.

“These find­ings have very clear impli­ca­tions for how increased wealth and sta­tus in soci­ety shapes pat­terns of eth­i­cal behav­ior, and sug­gest that the dif­fer­ent social val­ues among the haves and the have-nots help dri­ve these ten­den­cies,” Piff said of the cumu­la­tive find­ings.

The research was fund­ed in part by the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion.

For the lat­est think­ing on busi­ness, man­age­ment and eco­nom­ics from the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, vis­it

The Rot­man School of Man­age­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to is redesign­ing busi­ness edu­ca­tion for the 21st cen­tu­ry with a cur­ricu­lum based on Inte­gra­tive Think­ing. Locat­ed in the world’s most diverse city, the Rot­man School fos­ters a new way to think that enables the design of cre­ative busi­ness solu­tions. The School is cur­rent­ly rais­ing $200 mil­lion to ensure Cana­da has the world-class busi­ness school it deserves. For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it


For more infor­ma­tion:
Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Voice 416.946.3818

Fol­low Rot­man on Twit­ter @rotmanschool