Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution) challenges a recent article that appeared in Wired, Greed Isn’t Good: Wealth Could Make People Unethical. The Wired article summarized research that supports a common belief, that upper class wealth puts you at risk of being more unethical than the rest of us.
As an individual’s wealth and status rise, so does their tendency to be unethical, concludes a new study of the relationship between socioeconomics and ethics.
The study included seven different experiments that spanned real-world and laboratory settings, from rude San Francisco drivers to test subjects given a chance to take candy from children.
Tyler Cowen argues that we need to be cautious in how we interpret the studies. He does concede the following initially:
Of the seven tests, two of them showed that people driving more expensive cars are more in a hurry and more likely to cut off others or not yield. That’s not praiseworthy, but hardly a major moral condemnation.
But he also highlight the potential flaws in the remaining study. These studies are not, in fact, on upper class individuals. Rather it is on the projected feelings of people toward upper class individuals and that is a huge distinction.
Several of the tests involved people being asked to imagine they were high class, not actual “high class” people themselves. To that extent we are testing the lower class view of the upper classes, noting that I would not use those terms as given. One of the tests showed that social class did not matter once we adjust for a person’s attitude toward greed. A positive attitude toward greed is positively correlated with social class, but it was also easy enough to “prime” the lower class individuals to feel the same way, suggesting that extreme context dependence will hold here.
He offers up alternative conclusions including, “…that high-status people cheat more at games and less at many other activities, including those of real life. (They are also in more of a hurry on the road.)”