Morality? Oh THAT’S rich…

Now I have no idea how many people actually believe this, and maybe I’m late to the party, but it seems that the criminal justice system is set up in such a way that people on the lowest socioeconomic rungs bear the brunt of the punishment. Sure, part of it is the fact that the very wealthy can afford lawyers and have more familial strings to pull to reduce the charge. But that stuff is extra-judicial. That’s not the way the justice system is set up – that’s the way the entire political/economic/social system is set up. It’s rigged for the rich – everyone knows that.

But the criminal justice system itself – the way the laws are enforced, what we think of when we conjure an image of ‘crime’, the kinds of cases we prosecute and the way we go about executing ‘justice’ – these all seem to be in the business of punishing the poor. Steal $50 from someone on the street and you’re a monster – steal several trillion and you’re appointed to the president’s economic council. We actually have the gall to distinguish between ‘crime’ and ‘white collar crime’, as though one is the nicer version of the other.

Now there are a number of potential explanations for this, but certainly one of them is that poor people are just less trustworthy. I was offered that hypothesis straight-faced by someone at Skeptics in the Pub a couple of months ago – poor people are poor because they’re immoral and lack the decency to work their way out of poverty. The wealthy are less criminal because they’re more moral, right? Yeah, looks like the opposite is true:

A new study gives new meaning to the word “classy” — it turns out wealthier, better educated, more successful people have a greater tendency to lie, cheat and cut off pedestrians while driving, compared with their poorer neighbours.


Stéphane Côté, a psychologist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management who co-authored the study, said he was surprised by the consistency of the results across all the experiments and thinks it’s something that people who are better off should be aware of. “I think it’s important for those people who have the resources to understand that this is their basic tendencies and potentially … reflect on their behaviour and whether it in fact takes into the needs of others,” he said in an interview Monday.

To test the association between morality and socioeconomic status, the researchers observed study participants in a number of settings. In the first experiment, they looked at the correlation between cutting off another driver or a pedestrian at a 4-way stop, and the type of car the person was driving. Perhaps unsurprisingly to those of you who drive, they found that people in the highest bracket of vehicle type were significantly more likely to cut someone else off.

Now this is hardly an earth-shattering finding. People being entitled dicks in traffic? Next they’ll be telling us that rain… I dunno… falls from clouds or something. The other studies were quite a bit more compelling. In a third study, participants were asked to read a scenario where someone unrightfully benefitted from their behaviour, and whether or not they (the participant) would engage in that same behaviour. When controlling for age, sex, and ethnicity, socioeconomic status was positively correlated with unethical behaviour.

Socioeconomic status, above a certain level of sufficiency, is judged in relation to other people. After all, if everyone around you makes the same amount of money, ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ don’t have a great deal of meaning. In the fourth study, participants were primed to consider themselves either high-status or low-status by asking them to compare themselves to either those at the top or those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. At the end of the study exercise, participants were offered a bowl of candies and told that, while the candies were for children in another lab, the participants could have some. As one might expect from the previous studies, participants primed to think of themselves as ‘high status’ took more candies than those who thought of themselves as ‘low status’. Because they earned them, obviously. To hell with the kids. You get candy when you get your MBA, lazy!

But aside from literally taking candy from babies, the wealthy were also found, in two separate studies, to be more likely to lie for personal gain.

Mitt Romney being uncharacteristically honest

Mitt Romney being uncharacteristically honest

Whether it was hiring a new employee for a job that was likely to disappear soon, or cheating at a rigged game of chance, people who reported higher socioeconomic status were more likely to ignore the rules to gain an advantage. What is interesting about the dice game is that while sex, age, religion and political affiliation were not predictive of cheating, attitudes toward greed did. Basically, we have another example of confounding, where the relationship between wealth (X) and being a scumbag (Y) is actually a function of how down you are with greed (Z).

Diagram of confounding

To test this, the researchers performed a 9th experiment in which they manipulated participants’ attitudes about greed. People were asked how likely they were to engage in certain unethical behaviours (stealing, receiving bribes, overcharging customers at work). They were also either asked questions about things that had happened during their day, or for three benefits of greed (to make the ‘up side’ of greed more salient). High-status individuals were just as likely to engage in the unethical behaviours, but interestingly low-status participants became just as likely to lie cheat and steal as the high-status ones if they held favourable attitudes toward greed.

So despite the hypothetical assumption embedded into the way our society thinks of criminal and unethical behaviour – that the wealthy are somehow more trustworthy and ethical than the poor, it appears that the evidence is pointing in rather the other direction. It is important to note that it is not wealth per se that makes people behave badly – it is how positive their attitude toward greed is. However, the strong correlation between wealth and greed (which is a chicken-egg question that will have to be addressed in another study) suggests that while you shouldn’t judge a person by the colour of hir skin, it might be okay to judge by the colour of hir money.

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  1. says

    So I wasn’t totally off the mark when I did some mild equating of morality with privilege in my last post then? At least if we base the concept of morality on considering the autonomy of other humans. Privilege forces us to see those not within our bubble of privilege as less human and therefore less deserving of full autonomy.

    Still thinking this concept out.

  2. Desert Son, OM says

    WilloNyx at #1:

    Privilege forces us to see those not within our bubble of privilege as less human and therefore less deserving of full autonomy.

    “Forces” seems an overstatement, but that may be my privilege clouding my perception.

    I would argue that privilege encourages, reinforces, and often “rewards” dehumanizing behavior.

    Maybe those things are forcing behavior?

    Still learning,


  3. leftwingfox says

    I think it’s meant like “radiative forcing” than “military force”. 🙂

  4. Desert Son, OM says

    leftwingfox at #1.1.1:

    I think it’s meant like “radiative forcing” than “military force”.

    Unfamiliar with the term, I looked up radiative forcing and I apologize for my ignorance, but I don’t understand the context in relation to privilege (the definition I found had to do with atmospheric climate changes relative to electromagnetic radiation). Can you clarify?

    Still learning,


  5. says

    What the fox means, and he may be using a metaphor that’s only useful to a limited group that happens to include me, is that these things could be considered “forces” in the sense of a force in physics. So, something that pushes you in one direction. Radiative forcing in atmospheric physics pushes the system in a given direction. So, increased radiative forcing pushes the system to a higher temperature. But as we can clearly see, there are other forces that can (temporarily, in the case of global warming) override the radiative forcing.

    To return to the comment under consideration here,

    Privilege forces us to see those not within our bubble of privilege as less human and therefore less deserving of full autonomy.

    If you think of “force” in the terms leftwingfox and I are thinking, it means privilege pushes us toward that end. Naturally there are other forcings on any given individual: Religious tenets, ingrained moral tendencies, specific friends or relatives in a non-privileged situation, etc. All these forces combine to generate the final outcome of any individual’s actions. But the point would be that privilege acts pretty much only in the direction of dehumanizing those outside our bubble.

    Whether that is actually borne out is not clear to me from the studies mentioned in the original post, but I think that’s the metaphor we have in mind.

  6. says

    “Force” is such a flexible word. I hadn’t considered the strength in which I might be using it. Encouraged is perhaps too soft for my tastes but I can see why some would use it.

    I suppose I think force may be more fitting because it is a coercive force. It doesn’t give us the whole truth to reality and encourage us. It is a blinding force if that makes sense.

  7. says

    Wow, good explanation for that idea of force.

    I might hire you to dictate my mind.

    I am also unsure of how much of it is draw out in the studies. I am just mostly thrilled that my musings have some basis in reality on my post. I worry when I start to wax philosophical sometimes.

  8. Blondin says

    This sounds similar to the findings of Paul Feldman, the ‘bagel man’ in Steven Leavitt’s Freakonomics. He ran a pay-by-honour-system bagel delivery business for office workers in Washington, DC. He kept statistics on who was more likely to stiff him and when and under what conditions.

    In locations where there were workers, admin & execs on different floors he found that the higher up the hierarchy you went the less likely they were to pay for their bagels – “I had idly assumed that in places where security clearance was required for an individual to have a job, the employees would be more honest than elsewhere. That hasn’t turned out to be true.”

    Is it that people who have climbed the corporate ladder develop a sense of entitlement or is it just that ‘nice guys finish last and cheaters always prosper’?

  9. Riptide says

    So all of us poor fuckers bought the canard that “work hard and play by the rules and you’ll succeed,” while the rule-breaking fuckbags looted the granary around us. That seems to me an inescapable conclusion of the study–one’s poverty itself (or lack thereof) is predictive of one’s attitude of fairness and ‘the American dream’, not vice-versa.

    Like the false implication of education and wealth, historically. Excepting the last few decades, education has been an artifact of wealth–rich people can afford to send themselves and their children to school, and the ‘jobs’ wealthy people do could be done without sophisticated education. Even today, I know too many PhDs who’re barely in the ‘middle class’ to believe the correlation is all, or even mostly, one-way.

  10. Desert Son, OM says

    WilloNyx at #1.1.2:

    It is a blinding force if that makes sense.

    It does, and thank you, that was also helpful and clarifying for me!

    Still learning,


  11. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Next they’ll be telling us that rain… I dunno… falls from clouds or something.

    Rain is caused by flocks of birds being fed diuretics and then flying overhead. This is a known and uncontestable fact!

  12. Efogoto says

    I’m a proponent of the “pissing angels” theory of precipitation. As soon as we’re all atheists, no more rain!

  13. John Horstman says

    My guess is that Greed as the confounding factor is spot-on. People who think greed is good are more likely to become higher-socioeconomic-status individuals since our socioeconomic system rewards people at the expense of others (a function of existing in a world with limited material resources). It’s not so much that rich people are more likely to become assholes, it’s that assholes are more likely to become rich, since the most direct way to do so it to act in one’s own interests to the detriment of others (assholery).

  14. Stuart says

    I think one element behind this is the idea, rooted in Christianity, that sacrifice is a necessary component of morality, and therefor that rewarding people for doing good somehow reduces the goodness of the actions. Thus, we expect people who choose to do the right thing to bear the entire cost of doing so themselves, while still being forced to compete on a level playing field with those who choose to do the wrong thing and profit thereby.

    You see this all the time when people argue (for example) that paying teachers well would result in people taking the job just for the money, rather than because they honestly care about children (though I notice that no-one ever seems to extend this argument to politicians caring about good government.)

    There is an idea that encouraging people to do good by rewarding it is somehow ruining the purity of their action. If every time a person chooses to do good, they must pay a price to do so, and must then continue to compete with those who didn’t have to pay that same price, it stands to reason that over time those who are least inclined to do good will tend to get ahead, and those most inclined to do good will fall behind as they sacrifice their own interests to do so.

    It is broadly true that a willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve good ends marks one as a good, or at least better, person. It does not follow, however, that a society that does not reward doing good is a better society, but this appears to be the trap we have fallen into.

    All of this is just my opinion, of course.

  15. chrisdevries says

    I would also give Christianity some of the blame here, because Christians believe that behaving well, playing fair, etc. have absolutely no bearing on the eternal outcome of one’s life. Letting Jeezus into your heart and getting him to absolve you of your sins is the only way to eternally cover your ass. The fatalistic assumption that follows from this ridiculous assertion is that since we’re all sinners anyway, and all sins are excused by your salvation, there is no downside to sinning. Period.

    It’s so funny how the most important doctrine of Christianity (unconditional salvation due to Jesus’s sacrifice for your sins ONLY IF you accept him as your Lord and savior) is so completely divorced from the actual example he sets in the Gospels. It’s almost like it was designed that way so that people would see themselves as shitty, immoral assholes regardless of their actual behavior, and also see Christianity as the cheap fix to this problem. Reminds me of that line from Homer Simpson: “Beer: the cause of, and solution to all of life’s problems.”

  16. says

    Religious persuasion, as I mention above, didn’t play an explanatory role in the model. It certainly could, but the evidence says otherwise. Also, while the Protestant “saved by faith” model could certainly lead to reliance on a last-minute conversion in order to escape hellfire, I know of no mainstream movement or preachers who promote anything other than a “go and sin no more” model, requiring adherence during life rather than a bet-hedging kind of faith. If that kind of “well I’m a sinner anyway, so fuck it” Christianity exists, it seems to me that it would be fringe.

    What is interesting about Christianity and greed is that there should be exactly zero wealthy Christians. Every reference to wealth in the gospel is about giving it all away to the poor – Jesus is pretty explicit about that. If anything, strictly-followed Christianity should have a moderating effect on greed – once again the evidence says it doesn’t.

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