People from privileged, wealthy backgrounds are more likely to be dishonest and unethical than their poorer counterparts, a study has found.
From depriving children of sweets and reckless driving to lying for financial gain, the researchers at the University of California found that upper-class participants were more prone to immoral behaviour.
Subjects were divided into groups according to their social backgrounds and asked to carry out a series of tasks to test their scruples. The tests focused on traits such as honesty and consideration for others.
It was found that the wealthier the participant, the more likely they were to break the law, make unethical decisions and take valued goods from others.
They were also more likely to lie in a negotiation, cheat in order to attain a prize and endorse unethical behaviour at work.
The researchers concluded that the unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals were partly down to greed. They also were deemed to be more self-absorbed, less aware of others and less able to identify the emotions of others.
They went on to say that the theory could partly explain the banking crisis, as self-confident, wealthy bankers would be more likely to make reckless decisions.
The participants were first asked about their wealth, schooling, social background, religious persuasions and attitudes to money in an attempt to establish their perceived social class.
The tasks they performed included conducting a fake job interview in which they knew that the job might become redundant within six months. They were encouraged to conceal this from the candidate to test their compliance in unethical behavior and dishonesty.
They were also given the opportunity to cheat in a self-scoring dice game in order to gain a cash prize.
Another test assessed the social status of drivers based on their appearance and the make of their car. Those who were categorised as wealthier were more likely to drive through pedestrian crossings without stopping and cut up other drivers.
Lead researcher, Dr Paul Piff found conflicting reasons for the responses, the Telegraph reports: "On the one hand, lower-class individuals live in environments defined by fewer resources, greater threat and more uncertainty.
"It stands to reason, therefore, that lower-class individuals may be more motivated to behave unethically to increase their resources or overcome their disadvantage.
"A second line of reasoning, however, suggests the opposite prediction: namely, that the upper class may be more disposed to the unethical.
"Greater resources, freedom, and independence from others among the upper class give rise to self-focused social cognitive tendencies, which we predict will facilitate unethical behaviour.
"Historical observation lends credence to this idea. For example, the recent economic crisis has been attributed in part to the unethical actions of the wealthy.
"Religious teachings extol the poor and admonish the rich with claims like, 'It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven'."
The link between economics and ethics has been the subject of numerous studies. According to research presented at the 105th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, the more financially dependant a man is on his female partner, the more likely he is to cheat on her. However, conversely, the more dependent a women is on her partner, the less likely she is to be unfaithful, said researcher, Christin Munsch, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University.
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