Ethics Versus Greed

Over the past few months we have been hearing the politicos ranting about how they are concerned about the ‘middle class.’ A major problem is how does one define the ‘middle class.’ Well, the ultimate arbiters of our social status will, of course, come from the ranks of the psychologists and management school gurus.

It is a widely held belief amongst the long tail of the 99% that I personally rub shoulders with that ‘to get on’ one has to be flexible with regards to ethics. How flexible depends on the individual, but now we can put to rest such suspicions as Piff et al has carried out a seminal study of the ethical behavior differential of upper and lower class people (1,2,3). (Note: I am hanging on to the middle by my finger nails. Feel free to join me.)

Piff et al gave their participants a series of 7 experimental problems to tease out their ethical behavior. Now it is interesting that they didn’t stick with just one small group but brought in people from a variety of sources such as Craig’s list and Amazon’s Mechanical  Turk.

With seven individual experiments, the original paper is worthy of study, but I’ll report on a couple of juicy data points here. How juicy, I guess depends on your paycheck.

From study number 5. This took 108 people from Amazon Turk to act as tough negotiators for salary for a new job applicant. They knew that the applicant was looking for long-ish term employment and wanted reassurance for long term stability. They would accept a lower salary to achieve that assurance, but the negotiators knew that the job would vanish in 6-months. What would you do? Well, those described as UC went for the good of the corporation and promised long-term jobs to get assent to the lower salary. Not so the LC

From study number 1. Experimenters stood at four-way stops and pedestrian crossings and recorded cars behaving badly (cutting-off pedestrians or pushing ahead of their turn at 4-ways). Four times as many expensive cars cut off other drivers at 4-ways and almost half of the expensive cars cut off pedestrians while none of the oldest, cheapest cars did.

There are lots of other fun factors in the paper for those of us who worry about such things. The authors think that the rise in social status for all primates, not just the 1%, but chimpanzees and baboons too, makes one more self-focused and hence a little careless about other individuals in the social milieu. So the big question remains as to how do we encourage empathy to tame our greed?


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