Wealth and Antisocial Behavior: Reverse Causality?

by Peter Dorman
(reposted from Econospeak  with author”s permission)

Wealth and Antisocial Behavior: Reverse Causality?

There is quite a bit of buzz about this just-prepublished article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here is the abstract:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

The tone of the first wave of commentary, as far as I can tell, is that we knew it all along—rich people are nasty. I would like to put in a word, however, for the other direction of causality, that dishonesty and putting one’s own interests ahead of others are conducive to wealth. I certainly don’t mean this deterministically; there are lots of stone-broke cheats and chiselers out there. Nevertheless, at many key moments of life people face a choice, whether to shade a bit and advance their own career, or remain honest and end up back in the pack. Do you take credit for someone else’s work in order to get a promotion? Do you leave out some information that would reduce the likelihood of a sale that would make you a tidy profit? And if you find yourself in a zero-sum situation where your gain is someone else’s loss (or more gain for you means less gain for them), do you push your advantage as hard as you can?

The reason I bring this up is because there is a constant background murmur in our society that says that greater wealth has to be a reward for more talent, more effort or more contribution to society. When Steve Jobs died, he was a poster child for this view. Yeah, he was something of a jerk, but he gave us all those great gadgets, and that’s why he was so rich. Could it be, however, that among all those whose intelligence, creativity and obsessive toil drives progress, what separates the Steve Jobs from the Unknown Nerd is the bundle of personal traits that add up to claiming for oneself alone the contribution of everyone else? There are a lot of people who could never imagine raking in billions while those who do the physical work in China are driven to, or past, the brink of suicide. They won’t get to be CEO. Nor would the people taking in the super-bonuses at Citi, G-S, BoA and the rest be where they are if they put as much energy into making sure mortgage borrowers were treated legally and fairly as they do into squeezing a little more profit into the kitty.
Maybe the reason a lot of people are vulnerable in this economy is that they’re too damned decent. Between, say, Tyler Cowen and Leo Durocher, who do you think has a better handle on how the world really works?

Posted by Peter Dorman