High social status linked to basic behavior?

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Feb. 27, 2012 – People who see themselves as upper class may not always act classy, ​​according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In seven different experiments, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto demonstrated that members of the “upper class” were more likely than those lower down the economic and social ladder to be affected. ‘adopting unethical behaviors, including taking candy meant for children.

“If the rules aren’t enforced, upper-class people are more likely to break them,” says researcher Paul Piff, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Berkeley.

The way a person behaves may have more to do with a person’s situation in life than the intrinsic quality of the person. “Studies like this show how inequalities shape people’s behavior. Status has a surprising effect on the way you see the world, ”says Piff.

Bad driving

Piff and his colleagues organized both laboratory and field experiments to test their hypothesis that upper class status would make people more likely to neglect the well-being of others and act in ways that promote their own. own personal interest.

In the first experiment, they observed that people driving expensive cars were more likely to cut other drivers at an intersection than those driving less luxurious vehicles.

In the second experiment, the search assistants were instructed to attempt to cross an intersection to see if they would be cut by an oncoming car. Again, the type of car predicted the outcome. Drivers of more expensive cars did not give way to pedestrians more often than other drivers.

Piff says a car’s make, age and appearance are a reliable indicator of a driver’s wealth and social status, although he acknowledges that it’s not uncommon for people to buy a car. who is beyond their means.

“It’s a potential [limiting] factor, ”he says,“ but we don’t think there are enough poor people who buy Lexuses to really influence the results.

Social psychologist Nicole M. Stephens, who was not involved in Piff’s research, says the mixture of experiences increases the value of the study.

“One of the strengths of this research is that it examines behavior in real environments as well as in the laboratory,” says Stephens, an assistant professor in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “This research highlights how experiences in different social class contexts can have a powerful impact on our daily behavior and our interactions with others.”

‘Greed is good’

The group defined as the upper class did not fare better in the laboratory. In one experiment, 129 undergraduates were asked to rank their own position on the social ladder relative to others.

Shortly after their dismissal, but not before, the Experimenters told them they could grab candy from a jar on the way out, even though those candies were really meant for children. Those who qualified as upper class had more candy than anyone else.

In another experiment, 195 adults were asked to report their score after a “random” roll of five six-sided dice. The fix was there, however. Everyone was given a score of 12. However, this was not the score reported by many upper class members. Piff says some reported scores were as high as 30, the highest possible score. Many others reported scores in the 1920s.

In a final experiment, Piff and his team found that encouraging the attitude that “greed is good” makes people in the upper and lower classes behave badly.

“If you can get lower-class people to approve of this value, they’re just as likely to behave unethically,” Piff explains. “If you can change beliefs about greed, you can change behaviors. In theory, you could highlight the negative characteristics of greed and reduce unethical tendencies.

George Mason University psychologist and education professor Martin Ford, PhD, is impressed with Piff’s study.

“It’s especially compelling when the same basic phenomenon is demonstrated using a wide variety of experimental methods,” says Ford, who reviewed the study for WebMD. “The ability to justify and reject transgressive conduct as an ‘exception’ or ‘not applicable’ to the self-concept of responsibility is the key to making an unethical choice even thinkable.”

Piff says there is nothing wrong with self-interest in appropriate situations.

“Self-interest makes you want to go to work and feed your family,” he says. “It’s good for competition and innovation, but you have to play by the rules. “


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