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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
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 27, 2012 -- People who consider themselves upper class may not always act all that classy, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In seven different experiments, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto demonstrated that members of the "upper class" were more likely than those farther down the economic and social ladder to engage in unethical behavior, including taking candy meant for children.

“If rules are not enforced, upper class people are more likely to break them,” says researcher Paul Piff, a PhD candidate in Berkeley’s psychology department.

How someone behaves may have more to do with a person’s situation in life than the intrinsic quality of the person. “Studies like this show how inequality shapes people’s behavior. Status has a surprising effect on how you view the world,” Piff says.

Misbehaving Behind the Wheel

Piff and his colleagues arranged experiments both in the lab and out in the field to test their hypothesis that upper class status would both make people more likely to disregard others’ welfare and to act in ways that further their own self-interest.

In the first experiment, they observed that people driving expensive cars were more likely to cut off other drivers at an intersection than those driving less luxurious vehicles.

In the second experiment, research assistants were tasked with attempting to cross an intersection to see if they would be cut off by an oncoming car. Once again, the type of car predicted the result. Drivers of more expensive automobiles failed to yield to pedestrians more often than other drivers.

Piff says that the make, age, and appearance of a car is a reliable indicator of the driver’s wealth and social status, though he acknowledges that it’s not unheard of for people to buy a car that’s beyond their means.

“That’s a potentially [limiting] factor,” he says, “but we don’t think there are enough poor people buying Lexuses to really sway the results.”

Social psychologist Nicole M. Stephens, who was not involved in Piff’s research, says the mixture of experiments enhances the value of the study.

“One strength of this research is that it examines behavior in real world settings as well as in the laboratory,” says Stephens, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “This research highlights how experiences in different social class contexts can have a powerful impact on our everyday behavior and interactions with others.”

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