Driving his teenage daughter to school each morning in Berkeley, California, Dacher Keltner thought he noticed a trend: people driving expensive cars were more likely to ignore the rules of the road than drivers of less expensive vehicles. The most belligerent drivers, Keltner thought, were behind the wheels of Mercedes. Black Mercedes, in fact.
In 2012, Keltner and Paul Piff, psychologists at UC Berkeley, decided to put these observations to scientific study. They looked specifically at driving behaviors, but the researchers were asking some much bigger questions about ethics: Were rich people more likely to think they were above the law than poor people? Did they believe their needs were more important? Did their ethical behavior somehow differ?
The study, and several that followed, came to some unsettling conclusions: as people climb the social ladder, their compassion for others declines. In fact, research has repeatedly demonstrated that high earners behave less ethically than low earners. They are more likely to make morally dubious decisions, to lie, and to cheat. All these traits, researchers found, were created in part by more favorable attitudes toward greed.
Understanding how wealth impacts people’s behavior is a crucial question of our times. For the first time in history, the median net worth of U.S. lawmakers in the Senate and House was over a million dollars. The gap between rich and poor is larger than it has been in generations: the country’s top one percent owns more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80 percent has just seven percent. The wealthiest 400 Americans have the same combined wealth as the 150 million people at the bottom. The political and economic power of this country rests in the hands of a very few, very wealthy individuals. How does their financial status affect their moral compass?
In order to begin asking those questions, Keltner, Piff, and two assistants parked themselves for their first study near a four way stop sign between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. The assistants randomly selected cars as they approached the stop sign and observed whether the driver, after coming to a stop, waited his or her turn or cut in front of another driver who had arrived earlier, thereby breaking the etiquette of the intersection (not to mention California law).
The assistants classified the driver’s social class based on the status of the car. A Mercedes was a five, a brand new Honda Accord was a four, and so on, down to Dodge Colts, Ford Pintos, and other beaters, which were labeled at the one level. The group found that 12.4 percent of all drivers cut in front of those who had the right of way. But drivers of the fanciest cars—the fives—were four times as likely as those driving cheaper cars to cut in front of another driver.
Subsequent tests strengthened the team’s theory. Almost half of drivers of expensive cars failed to yield to pedestrians at a clearly marked crosswalk—even after making eye contact—while none of the people driving the poorest cars ignored the pedestrians.
“It’s not a trivial thing. This is dangerous. It’s also against the law,” Keltner says. “It started to tell us that there’s something about wealth and being at the top that you kind of feel like I’m above the law… It makes us think of the perils of prestige.”
In a separate study, Piff and his colleagues asked one group of participants to spend a few minutes comparing themselves financially to people better off than they were, while another group was invited to compare themselves against people who were less well off. The participants were then presented with a jar of candy and told they could take as much as they wanted for themselves, and that the leftover candy would be given to children in a nearby laboratory. Those participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were compared to others ended up taking significantly more candy for themselves and leaving less for the children.
“This tells us even the perception of wealth can generate this behavior,” Piff says. In other words, it’s nurture over nature. “It’s not about character, it’s not about who people are or some inborn characteristic of wealthy people that create these patterns. It’s that the situation of wealth drives a lot of behaviors.”
In a related set of studies, Keltner found that less affluent people are more likely to agree with statements such as “I often notice people who need help,” and “It’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable.” This was true even after controlling for other factors that affect feelings of compassion, including gender, ethnicity, and spiritual beliefs. By contrast, previous research has found that high net worth individuals are worse at recognizing other people’s emotions and are less likely to pay attention to people they are interacting with by doing things such as fiddling with phones. Rich people are also more likely to agree with the statement that greed is justified, beneficial, and morally defensible.
Some have expressed outrage at Keltner and Piff’s findings. Not surprisingly, many of them are rich, and accuse the researchers of having a political bias. But Piff says the findings aren’t political. “It’s an important disclaimer to make,” he says. “This is not about conservatives who are wealthy; it’s about anyone who is wealthy. It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum.” (Congressional Democrats, for their part, are slightly wealthier than their Republican counterparts).
Despite the findings, Keltner is still optimistic about the state of American society. He notes that people care more about the class divide than any other social issue, and points to members of the super-rich, like Bill Gates, who are devoting vast amounts of their wealth to philanthropy.
“There’s this historic cycle of greed and self interest going too far and shifting towards a greater interest in society,” Keltner says. “People are starting to care again about poverty and equality and the means by which we can balance it out a bit better.” But until that day comes, you might want to be extra careful while crossing the street.