Ethics and Socio-Economic Status




When University of California at Berkley researches asked themselves that question they decided to conduct a study to find out the answer.  Paul Piff a doctoral candidate is the lead author of the study.  They conducted a few experiments.  What they found is that the people of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to:

  • break the law while driving
  • exhibit unethical decision making tendencies
  • take valued goods from others
  • lie in negotiation
  • cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize
  • endorse unethical behavior at work

In a video Erik Gordon a professor at the University of Michigan talks about the study and mentions that:

“In general they found that the people of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to be unethical.  But if you made people think that greed was good, just think about these three ways that greed might be good, in fact the people of lower socioeconomic status became much more unethical than they had been.  And became more unethical than the people of high socioeconomic status, so it makes you wonder about what we are feeding people’s minds.  Are we making people greedier and therefore more unethical.”

They conducted several experiments including:

  • 195 volunteers participated in a die rolling game.  Roll the die five times for the highest score online.  The higher the score the more credits toward a drawing for a $50 certificate.  Piff stated “the upper socioeconomic status people were way more likely to report a score above 12.  It was fairly remarkable.  You wouldn’t think that people reporting incomes of $150,000 per year would be so motivated to win this prize.”
  • 108 volunteers were asked to imagine they were an employer and negotiate for the lowest pay for a candidate.  The job would last six months.  They were asked what they would do if the candidate came in and was willing to work for less only if the job were for two years.  The wealthier participants again were more likely to act unethical.
  • Those in expensive vehicles at cross walks were more likely to breeze past pedestrians in the cross walk.  In California vehicles are supposed to yield if someone is in the crosswalk.
  • 129 undergraduates were manipulated to view themselves as poor or wealthy.  They were presented with a jar of candy and told it was going to children in a nearby lab, but to help themselves.  The upper income took more than those believing themselves to be low income.

Below is the 2013 TedTalk where Paul Piff, one of the researchers, discusses the results of those studies.


Related Blog Post:

Updated 9/10/2016 to add in link to Ted Talk video and remove invalid links as noted below in links section.

Links in article:

[i] Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior (

[ii] Gordon says study shows that Greed Corrupts Ethics 3 minutes 54 seconds ( Video No Longer Available 9/10/2016 link removed

[iii] Rich people more likely to cheat, behave badly research finds ( Article No Longer Available 9/10/2016 link removed



One thought on “Ethics and Socio-Economic Status

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  1. I heard about this in the news. Very enlightening and I can see why it’s true. The only part that contradicts these findings are when the rich person personally knows you. For instance, my ex-brother-in-law Jon, is a multimillionaire. He has always been ethical with me.


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