Do people in higher socio-economic positions tend to act out of greed?
Professor Paul Piff at UC Berkeley recently conducted a study attempting to see if there was some type of correlation between a person’s socio-economic status and the way they conduct themselves morally and ethically. Piff felt compelled to disprove the popular conservative stereotype that people in lower socio-economic positions tend to act out of greed and personal benefit.
Piff’s results have certainly garnered some controversy as other sites and bloggers repost and critique his study. While people of more liberal leanings have endorsed the study and its findings, others have found Piff’s results to be unsupported and underwhelming. Some critics have even dismissed the study’s accuracy based on the fact that it was conducted at UC Berkeley, an academic institution with an illustrious history of leftist leanings and radical thought.The premises of Piff’s tests are very unique and almost comical when one anticipates the outcome.
The first test sought to determine if there was a correlation between a car’s monetary value and it’s owners willingness to yield to pedestrians who have the right of way. Piff found that luxury cars were less likely to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk than more economical models. However, when one considers the flawed credit and money borrowing systems prevalent in the United States, it becomes impossible to base a person’s socio-economic status purely by the car they drive.
Piff would have no idea if a luxury car in his study was owned, leased, rented, or about to repossessed for lack of payment. For all Piff knows, the luxury car could be stolen, which would explain perfectly the driver’s reluctance to yield. While Piff’s test parameters could use re-examination, Jordan Wolf’s critique is downright laughable. Wolf does not even try to imply that poor people do not have any important obligations or pressing places to be – he explicitly explains that the intrinsic “higher value of a wealthy person’s time” somehow disproves the UC Berkeley hypothesis that luxury cars are less likely to yield to a pedestrian with the right of way. Therefore, according to Wolf, rich people shouldn’t have to slow down for poor people, because poor people don’t have schedules and rich people’s time is more valuable.
Another point of weakness in Piff’s study was what critics described as a lack of distinction between test subjects who were actually rich and privileged and subjects who were merely primed to feel that way for the purpose of scientific research. Critics point to two tests in particular: one being a game of Monopoly where one player is given a financial headstart and the rules are modified greatly to his advantage, and another test where subjects are invited to have candy from a bowl that is supposedly reserved for children.
Piff found in the Monopoly test that the player with the advantage eventually began to play the game with no acknowledgement of his upper hand. Piff claims that the advantaged gamers began to feel that their advantage was based on their own gaming skills and intelligence, not the fact that they began the game with double the resources and dice rolls. Piff’s candy bowl test revealed that wealthier subjects took approximately double the amount of candy as their less wealthy counterparts, despite knowing the candy was reserved for children in a later study. One of the main critiques of this segment of Piff’s research is the blurry line that exists between an actually wealthy subject and a subject who has been primed to feel wealthy. The slanted Monopoly game is the most specific area of fault in this respect, as those findings are merely under the subject’s psychological pretext of being made to feel wealthy and advantaged, not that the subject is wealthy himself.
Piff PK, Stancato DM, Côté S, Mendoza-Denton R, & Keltner D (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (11), 4086-91 PMID: 22371585