If you think about a stereotype of the well-to-do, the image that pops into your head might be one of impeccable manners, good breeding, and polite behavior. However, the results of a new study may shatter that perception forever. As it turns out, social status does not necessarily confer class or translate to people who behave well.
The research, which took place at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto, was actually a compilation of seven different trials, some in the confines of a lab and others out in the real world.1 In both environments, however, those in the upper class tend to behave worse than anyone else.
In one of the field experiments, the researchers kept watch at a busy intersection. They determined that those driving luxury cars were more likely to cut off other drivers than were those in less expensive vehicles. Another similar experiment involved researchers walking across an intersection and taking note of which drivers allowed them the right of way. Again, those in expensive cars tended to resist yielding to pedestrians more frequently than those in more moderately priced automobiles. Of course, the argument can be made that some drivers of fancy cars are not necessarily rich and some very wealthy people may drive ordinary vehicles. But overall, the type of car -- especially when it's relatively new -- is considered a fairly accurate indicator of a person's economic level.
Back on campus, the scientists had 129 undergraduate volunteers rank themselves in comparison to others on a rating of status. Upon being released from their responsibilities in the lab, the participants were invited to take candy from a jar as they left, but it was mentioned that the candy was really there for children. Those who reported themselves to be upper class helped themselves to more candy than their peers did. And in yet another experiment, 195 subjects rolled five dice and recorded the score. The dice, however, were loaded and always added up to 12. Nevertheless, many of those in a higher socioeconomic bracket failed to report their scores accurately. There were numerous scores listed in the 20s and several even reported a 30, the highest score theoretically attainable. (I mean really -- cheating on meaningless dice throws? This is starting to get disturbing -- and yet it gets worse!)
One of the trials conducted showed that maybe this willingness to break the rules that the wealthy seemed to consistently display could be instilled in others. This experiment had the researchers promoting the concept that greed is good and endorsing negative behavior. In fact, this was the one time that all classes of people appeared ready to abandon their morals and act only in their own self-interest. It makes sense that this is not an inherent quality in any way, but more a learned behavior gleaned from the values a person is either taught or learns through life experience. And yet sadly, in all settings, many of the rich are more likely to exhibit bad behavior.
It's a shame, really, that instead of using their status for something positive, such as finding ways to help others less fortunate than themselves, so many wealthy individuals just want more and always have to feel as if they are coming out on top, even if all they are gaining is a few extra pieces of candy meant for children…or just reporting meaningless scores from rolling the dice. But in life, maybe this competitive edge is what pushes them to be so successful and accumulate such wealth. It's just unfortunate that these are the morals they will clearly be handing down to their children or using while they manage our money while working on Wall Street.
And the results of a 2010 ethics survey of 43,000 high school students published by the Josephson Institute of Ethics seems to show that today's youth (regardless of economic status) can use all the help it can get in the morals department.2 One-third of the boys and one-quarter of the girls admitted stealing from a store within the previous year. Eighty percent of the kids surveyed admitted lying to their parents about something important, and 59 percent admitted to cheating on schoolwork in the last year. Even worse, more than 25 percent of the respondents admitted that they had lied on at least a few of the survey questions, meaning the real numbers of cheater, liars, and thieves undoubtedly is higher. Yet in spite of their behavior, a stunning 92 percent of the kids reported feeling quite pleased with their ethical standards and conduct!
Clearly, it's not just the rich who are experiencing behavior problems. We would all do well to think long and hard about what kind of people we want our children to become as they grow up, upper class or not. Teaching morals and good behavior should be lesson number one for all of us -- not to mention practicing them ourselves in the here and now.
1 McMillen, Matt. "High Social Status Linked to Bad Behavior." WebMD. 27 February 2012. Accessed 6 March 2012. <http://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20120227/high-social-status-linked-to-bad-behavior>.
2 Jarc, Rich. "The Ethics of American Youth: 2010." 10 February 2011. Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics. 26 April 2011. http://charactercounts.org/programs/reportcard/2010/installment02_report-card_honesty-integrity.html