More money makes people act unethically

By Gabrielle Rosas

The divide between social classes in America is once again deepening in a way that has the 99 percent pitted against the top 1 percent of the financial pyramid. The Occupy Wall Street movement brought people from all walks of life together so they could face what they considered true evil: the rich. The rich, with their fancy cars, caviar and wads of cash, have become a symbol of what it truly means to be detestable.

A new study from the University of California, Berkeley purports to show some evidence that those in higher socio-economic classes are more likely to act unethically.

Now, this is where I stop and scratch my head. Does anyone actually find this information surprising? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that money leads to power, corruption and other extreme outcomes of a high financial status.

Let’s take a look at Bernie Madoff, whose decades-long $50 billion Ponzi scheme is nothing short of loathsome brilliance. The 73-year-old former investor and businessman pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts in 2009, including money laundering and securities fraud, adding up to a 150-year prison sentence—a well-deserved verdict for defrauding investors out of billions. For years, Madoff evaded the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s investigations and committed grossly greedy crimes.

Madoff wasn’t born evil, and he was not born into wealth. His mother stayed at home while his father was a plumber and stockbroker. Anyone offered the financial security and independence of a higher social class is “more likely to admit unethical behavior,” according to Robert Gore, an associate professor of psychology at Alliant International University in San Francisco.

But it doesn’t take a certain type of rich person to be unethical. All it takes is a whole lot of cash and financial freedom. Paul Piff, lead author of the study and doctoral candidate in psychology at Berkeley, said the results further demonstrate the idea that social environment is the key to unethical behavior among the wealthy.

“Instead, this highlights the disparities in social environments—that different positions occupied give rise to almost natural tendencies and divergent social values,” Piff told CNN.

However, wealth isn’t as black and white as Occupy protesters would like everyone to believe. One experiment in the study monitored drivers near the Berkeley campus. At an observed crosswalk, 45 percent of people driving cars deemed as “high status” ignored pedestrians, compared to only 30 percent in more modest cars. But not every person of “high status” drives a luxury vehicle. Though I must admit, I’ve experienced plenty of BMWs cutting me off on California freeways. This experiment may seem like a sound method of understanding the upper class. But how many people do we know who drive cars they can’t afford? The true answer isn’t easy to obtain.

Study participants, in this case a group of college students, were asked whether or not they would act unethically in everyday situations. But people’s own perceptions of themselves are often skewed, at least to the rest of us. What may seem unethical to one person might not seem so bad to another.

One question asked study participants if they would take a ream of printer paper from their workplace. Some participants could have lied and said they wouldn’t, while others replied they would.

It is this reason that the survey method is one the least accurate scientific methods of gathering data. While some participants might say they would steal a ream of paper, it may not reflect on his or her everyday behavior.

As a journalist, I must consider money in every article I write because it does make the world go round, unfortunately. Money has become a cultural staple of our society and the defining status symbol. It enables otherwise average, morally conscious people to serve their own self-interests. But billionaires like Warren Buffet prove just the opposite. Buffet told Forbes in 2006 that he would slowly begin to give away 85 percent of his fortune—estimated at $44 billion at the time—to various charities, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As far as I’m concerned, no part of that is unethical. Bill Gates didn’t seem to think so either when he told the New York Times in 2006, “The generosity and trust Warren has shown is incredible.” What this study really does is support an old adage: The love for money is the root of all evil. Or at least some of it.