Wealthy class more likely to lie and cheat: Study

They may be the more respectable and upstanding members of society, but the rich are also more likely to lie, cheat and engage in other kinds of unethical activities than those in lower classes, claims a new study.

But these findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, do not mean that everyone of high status behaves unethically, nor that everyone in lower society behaves ethically, scientists cautioned.

"We're not saying that if you're rich, you're necessarily unethical, and that if you're poor, you're necessarily ethical -- there are lots of instances of increased ethical conduct among upper-class individuals," study researcher Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

However, the researchers suggested that the rich's view of the world may be clouded by self-absorption and greed. As a result, they have fewer scruples than those who have less money to burn.

They came to the conclusion after a series of experiments examining social class and ethics. The first two took place in the street, with motorists secretly being observed as they crossed a busy junction and approached pedestrian crossings.

Those in the flashiest cars, assumed to be wealthy ones, were four times as likely as those in old bangers to cut up other vehicles by barging their way across the junction, the researchers found.

They were also more likely to break the law by failing to stop for a pedestrian who was trying to cross the road.

In a series of lab tests that included undergraduates at Berkeley and national online samples of adults, those who considered themselves upper class were found to have greater tendencies to make unethical decisions.

This included unrightfully stealing something, lying in a negotiation, cheating at a game of chance to boost their chances of winning cash or endorsing unethical behaviour at work, such as stealing cash, receiving bribes and overcharging customers.

"I was surprised at the consistency and strength of all these effects -- upper-class individuals often acted unethically three to four times more often than lower-class individuals," Piff said.

Another lab experiment revealed that unethical behaviour was not necessarily inherent to individuals.

The researchers had volunteers compare themselves with people with the most or least money, education and respected jobs, thereby subtly putting them into the mindset of someone with a relatively low or high socioeconomic status.

Greed was found to be the driving force. When poorer volunteers were asked to think of ways greed could be beneficial before taking part in the experiment, they acted just as unethically as the wealthy.

"If you take lower socioeconomic status people and just change their social values very subtly, they'll act just as unethically as upper-class individuals," Piff said.

"The patterns of behaviour naturally arise from increased wealth and status compared to others."

Other studies have shown that upper-class individuals are often less cognisant of others, worse at identifying the emotions others feel, less generous and altruistic, and more disengaged socially.

Such research might support these new findings -- it may be easier to act unethically toward others if you are not thinking about how they feel, Piff added.

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