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Scientists Bust the Top One Percent

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Ever since the Occupy Wall Street movement began last fall, we have been hearing the incessant mantra of:  Don’t blame the rich for wealth inequality.  In fact, Herman Cain’s futile bid for the Presidency was based (in part) on that very theme.  Last January, James Q. Wilson (who passed away on Friday) wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  Paul Buchheit of the Common Dreams blog rebutted Wilson’s essay with this posting:  “So say the rich:  ‘Don’t blame us for having all the money!’ ”.  How often have you read and heard arguments from apologists for the Wall Street banksters, upbraiding those who dared speak ill of those sanctified “job creators” within the top one percent of America’s economic strata?

Finally, a group of scientists has intervened by conducting some research about the ethics of those at the top of America’s socioeconomic food chain.  Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on this subject.  Their paper, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Here is the abstract:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.  In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals.  In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.  Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

The impact and the timing of this article, with respect to the current debate over income inequality, have resulted in quite a bit of interesting commentary.  I enjoyed the perspective of Peter Dorman at the Econospeak blog:

The tone of the first wave of commentary, as far as I can tell, is that we knew it all along – rich people are nasty.  I would like to put in a word, however, for the other direction of causality, that dishonesty and putting one’s own interests ahead of others are conducive to wealth.

*   *   *

The reason I bring this up is because there is a constant background murmur in our society that says that greater wealth has to be a reward for more talent, more effort or more contribution to society.

Most of the commentary written about the PNAS article has been relatively non-partisan.  Two-day access for reading the article on-line will cost you ten bucks.  For those of us who can’t afford that (as well as for those who can afford it – but are too greedy to pay for anything) I have assembled a number of excerpts from articles written by those who actually read the entire scientific paper.  The following passages will provide you with some interesting details about the research conducted by this group.

Christopher Shea of The Wall Street Journal gave us a brief peek at some of the specific findings of the studies conducted by this team.

It went so far as to show that higher-class people will literally take candy from the mouths of children.

An excerpt quoted by Shea illustrated how the group expanded on an observation made by French sociologist Émile Durkheim:

 “From the top to the bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused,” Durkheim famously wrote.  Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata.

Brandon Keim of Wired offered us more research data from the article, while focusing on the observations of team member Paul Piff, a Berkeley psychologist:

“This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead,” said evolutionary psychologist and consumer researcher Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the work.  “I am especially impressed that the findings are consistent across seven different studies with varied methodologies.  This work is not just good science, but it is shows deeper insight into the reasons why people lie, cheat, and steal.”

According to Piff, unethical behavior in the study was driven both by greed, which makes people less empathic, and the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society.  It insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms.

“When pursuit of self-interest is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to socially pernicious outcomes,” said Piff, who noted that the findings are not politically partisan.  “The same rules apply to liberals and conservatives.  We always control for political persuasion,” he said.

For Thomas B. Edsall of The New York Times, the research performed by this group helped explain the rationale behind a bit of Republican campaign strategy:

Republicans recognize the political usefulness of objectification, capitalizing on “compassion fatigue,” or the exhaustion of empathy, among large swathes of the electorate who are already stressed by the economic collapse of 2008, high levels of unemployment, an epidemic of foreclosures, stagnant wages and a hyper-competitive business arena.

Compassion fatigue was fully evident in Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC denouncing a federal plan to prop up “losers’ mortgages” at taxpayer expense, a rant that helped spark the formation of the Tea Party.  Republican debates provided further evidence of compassion fatigue when audiences cheered the record-setting use of the death penalty in Texas and applauded the prospect of a gravely ill pauper who, unable to pay medical fees, was allowed to die.

Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica reported on some of the juicy details from a few experiments.  When reading about my favorite experiment, keep in mind that the term “SES” refers to socioeconomic status.

Study number four involved participants rating themselves on the SES scale to heighten their perception of status; they were then answered a number of questions relating to unethical behavior.  At the end of the experiment, they were presented with a jar of individually wrapped candy and told that, although it was for children in a nearby lab, they could take some if they wanted.  At this point you might be able to guess what the results were.  High SES participants took more candy.

Gitlin concluded his review of the paper with this thought:

The researchers argue that “the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing.”  However, they point out that their findings aren’t absolute, and that philanthropic efforts such as those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet buck the observed trend, as does research which has shown a relationship between poverty and violent crime.

Meanwhile, the debate over economic inequality continues to rage on through the 2012 election cycle.  It will be interesting to observe whether this scientific report is exploited to bolster the argument that most of the one-percenters suffer from a character flaw, which not only got them where they are today – but which is shared by their kleptocratic comrades, who have facilitated a system of legalized predation.


 

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