Rich People Candy Study is Flawed, Occupy Protesters Not Necessarily More Ethical Than the 1%


About 48 hours ago, the Occupy movement agreed to take Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup, up on an offer he made in October. He said then that he would sit down and talk with the occupiers if they wanted to. Now, the amorphous movement has accepted. They want to meet.

For their meeting to be productive, they should ignore the media coverage from both sides. The side that claims that the Occupiers are dirty and lazy, and the side that claims that rich people are corrupt and greedy. Ignoring these characterizations will be harder, though, as social science steps up to investigate an empirical, psychological question: Who behaves better, the rich or the poor?

Specifically, the Huffington Post is reporting a study conducted at Berkeley that says that being rich makes one more likely to behave unethically. This latest study relies on a battery of experiments, but there are complications that the Huffington Post overlooks. First, there are qualifications that the authors themselves report, there are unanswered questions about their methodology, and the study does not even purport to claim that richer people are more unethical.

The paper references a study that includes several smaller experiments, but there are problems with all of them. One study involves looking at which types of cars stop for a confederate pedestrian. Nicer cars don't stop as much. But the explanations here could be many (the authors note these alternate explanations), such as the higher value of a wealthy person's time and their ability to more easily deal with the consequences of breaking the law. It's not they are wealthy, but rather that they are more likely to need to be somewhere.

More important is the study that introduces an experimental manipulation. People who are primed to compare themselves to very poor people are more likely to take candy that they were told would go to children. However, there are issues here. The Huffington Post says that “wealthier people” take more candy than non-wealthy, but as I said, this is inaccurate. The study looks at people who are primed to think wealthy thoughts (something very different – see this study), and being primed to think that one is wealthy may diverge in important ways from the psychological profile of being wealthy.

The authors themselves note a result that extends the criticism I just gave. When people who are primed to think of themselves as lower class are told that greed is good, they become more greedy than a person primed to think of themselves as upper-class.

Finally, the candy study says that experimenters told participants that they could take the candy, which introduces authority effects. Maybe the rich people just trusted the experimenters or only acted unethically when enabled by an authority figure. That would be bad, but different than saying that the rich are just greedier.

Last, even if it were true that being wealthy caused one to be greedier, this would not show that the actual wealthy people we find in our society are especially greedy, and this might be because being wealthy is correlated with other traits that reinforce ethical behavior. For instance, if wealthier people have more willpower than lower-class people (this might explain their wealth), they might be more resistant to acting immorally when faced with prolonged exposure to temptation.

The bottom line is that these studies are interesting, as are studies that show that thinking about money makes you more selfish, but they are far from conclusive, and I myself doubt that one's ethical outlook is a simple function of social class. 

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