Wealth and power make people less moral

by Mar 3, 2012Social class1 comment

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
People worried about the way an unbridled market led society can affect morality might want to take note of a new study from the University of Berkeley which seems to show very clearly that those higher up the pecking order, in social class and economic terms, basically are less moral. The diminished ethics is in large part driven by seeing greed as favourable, argues one of the main researchers, Paul Piff, who found that believing that greed is good was the best predictor of poor behaviour. Such studies are providing even more evidence of the deleterious effects of inequality on society. The study of over 1000 people was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To take a few examples, the more upper class subjects were four times more likely than those in any other social group to cut off other cars at a 4-way intersection and three times more likely to cut off a pedestrian about to cross a road. Interestingly in another test in a school, when offered the chance to take a few sweets from a jar which was then going to be given to children, the upper class subjects took twice as many as anyone else, and similar attitudes shone through in several other tests. For example they were more ruthless and dishonest when interviewing job applicants and were more likely to cheat in games, reporting higher scores in a dice game than were possible, as the dice were loaded.

The study also showed that priming participants with ideas suggesting the benefits of greed led to them all condoning frankly unethical practices such as bribery and corruption. This just backs up studies done over many years using priming. For example we know that if you put a picture of two eyes on a wall next to a tea and coffee kitty you get more donations than if the picture is of a flower, and if we use more attachment words people are kinder We are influenced by our environments and cultures, as well as our position in them and maybe social, business and cultural values have become much more materialist, individualistic and consumerist in recent years, leading to less ethical  and other-minded attitudes and behaviours.

This certainly chimes with the research suggesting that trust levels have decreased surely and steadily in countries such as the USA and the UK as inequality has risen, and community attitudes have decreased. Interestingly a while ago another study from the same Berkeley stable, whose leading light is professor Dacher keltner, showed that people from lower classes were more altruistic. Such research only confirms what the likes of the Occupy and Uncut protesters have been saying and suggests that pure, unregulated market led practices leads basically to people being less good, less kind and less caring. The likes of Miliband and Cameron might be arguing for an ethical capitalism but our current system rewards greed, ruthlessness and unscrupulous practices in the name of profit. It is no coincidence that, as the leading researcher on psychopaths, Bob Hare, has found, there are 4 times more psychopaths heading up large corporations than one would expect to see in the general population. Modern corporate business, without the constraints of the kinds of social and moral codes that humans have nearly always lived by, is bound to be a perfect breeding ground for such traits, and also for titling any of us more in that direction.

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