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Health & Balance

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High Social Status Linked to Bad Behavior

In and out of the Lab, Upper Class Thinking May Lead People to Lie, Cheat

‘Greed Is Good’

The group defined as upper class behaved no better in the laboratory. In one experiment, 129 undergraduates were asked to rank their own position on the social scale relative to others.

Shortly after they were dismissed, but not before, the experimenters told them that they could take candy from a jar on their way out, even though that candy was really meant for children. Those who labeled themselves upper class took more candy than anyone else.

In another experiment, 195 adults were told to report their score following a “random” roll of five six-sided dice. The fix was in, though. Everybody received a score of 12. However, that was not the score reported by many of the upper class. Piff says that some reported scores were as high as 30, the highest score possible. Many more reported scores in the 20s.

In a final experiment, Piff and his team found that encouraging the attitude that “greed is good” primes both upper and lower class people to misbehave.

“If you can make lower class people endorse that value, they are just as likely to behave unethically,” says Piff. “If you can change beliefs about greed, you can change behaviors. In theory you could stress the negative features of greed and reduce unethical tendencies.”

Psychologist and George Mason University professor of education Martin Ford, PhD, is impressed by Piff’s study.

“It is particularly compelling when the same basic phenomenon is demonstrated using a wide variety of experimental methods,” says Ford, who reviewed the study for WebMD. “The ability to justify and dismiss transgressive conduct as ‘an exception’ or ‘not applicable’ to one's self-concept of responsibility is the key to making an unethical choice even thinkable.”

Piff says that there is nothing wrong with self-interest in appropriate situations.

“Self-interest makes you want to go to work and feed your family,” he says. “It is good for competition and innovation, but you must play within the rules.”

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