According to an intriguing body of research by psychologists Paul Piff, Dacher Keltner and their collaborators, the higher someone’s social class, or the greater their wealth, the more unethical their behaviour is likely to be.
For example, people who drove cars of a higher status were more likely to cut off a pedestrian on a crossing. When invited to help themselves to a bowl of sweets, people who ranked themselves as more upper class took more sweets than those who ranked themselves a lower socioeconomic status. This was despite being told that the sweets were really meant for some children later on. In a further study, the higher someone ranked themselves in social status, the less likely they would divulge information on job security to a candidate.
It’s important to remember that all these examples simply highlight statistical correlations between class and unethical behaviour. They merely imply that social class causes changes in ethical behaviour, but they don’t prove it.
I can certainly comprehend the arguments for why class may affect behaviour. Poorer people may have a greater sense of community or are more aware of how their actions may affect others. Richer people may be more independent and subsequently forget about or ignore how their behaviour impacts the world around them. Richer people may not comprehend what abject poverty is, or have different frames of reference of the value of things…
In these experiments we could even be seeing people subconsciously parodying stereotypical cultural behaviours of superiority that have become reinforced over time. We should remember that all these experiments were conducted in the US and I wonder if we’d see the same responses in countries that have a more clearly delineated social class structure (like India or the UK) or those with a stronger welfare state (such as those in Scandinavia)? And what about cultures where wealth isn’t the status symbol it appears to be in the West?
However, I wonder if another factor is at work: what if some of the ‘successful’ people have different, innate attitudes to risk and entitlement compared to the majority? What if society needs a few bastards to keep the economy ticking on? In an ideal world, everyone would behave rationally, and there would be no risk associated with a new venture or idea. Then again, we’d also be able to predict the future.
In reality, the world is a volatile place, and decision making is based much more on necessity and trial and error, and we need people to take chances or put themselves first from time to time. The world needs risk takers – whether it’s the entrepreneur who quits their job to start their own business or the company director deciding to dig a mine in an unstable Third World country. Perhaps the personality types seen in these decision makers are the same types that make some of them more inclined to behave unethically in general.
For instance, to cut someone off at a pedestrian crossing is illegal in California, but getting caught is a small risk that some people would be willing to take. Entrepreneurs and business men and women take opportunities. A bowl of sweets is an opportunity. They are smart enough to take what has been offered to them. Maybe even smart enough to take reserves.
There is also a variety of everyday situations, you could say environments, that require some people to be assertive and others to be submissive. Stepping out of the Eurotunnel terminal into Kings Cross station, you are greeted with a wall of people each on their own mission. Tourists stop abruptly, looking confused and trying to get their bearings. Office workers dash past trying to get home at the end of a busy day. If everyone aggressively did their own thing to get through the crowds, people would bump into each other at a high rate; if everyone slowed down or stopped to equitably negotiate a way through, the daily commute would take all day.
Instead, it somehow just works. People subconsciously adapt to the environment. Some people will charge through regardless, others will pause to make way, others will find a way to skirt around. It’s an organic, living system that requires everyone to play their part. We’re not molecules in a test tube with nowhere to go; we’re organisms with destinations in mind; we individually, and subconsciously, work out the most effective and efficient way to cross a busy public place. And it requires some to be submissive and some to be aggressive.
Similarly, the other day I was in a traffic jam and the motorway signs flashed up saying ‘Congestion. Stay in lane.’ I was in the middle lane. To my right was a lane empty as far as the eye could see and I slipped into it. Obviously, if everyone had done so, nothing would have improved, but are you honestly telling me that if a few people took advantage of an empty lane, we would have increased congestion through relieving pressure on a congested one?
Similarly, with overtaking, people go above the speed limit to make progress. If people didn’t overtake, would there be more traffic in the lanes, would this increase congestion, lower the speed limit, and make the journey longer for everyone? Maybe society, or at least some systems, need a bit of arrogance from time to time.
I’m not saying that moral behaviour isn’t an important factor, though. Clearly, things like trust are important for any functioning economy. Studies show that societies with higher levels of trust have lower levels of corruption and higher GDP and growth figures. Does an economy, and a society, need a proportion of ‘bastards’ to be successful? Does it need a balance of people who have high levels of trust and those who are more liberal with their attitude to risk, rules and honesty?
Trust is certainly important for maintaining social order: for instance, knowing that property can’t be summarily seized means people invest in a country which grows the economy. However, once this is in place, does it need people who are prepared to bend the rules or, at the very least, push boundaries, to continue growing; growth that is essential for that economy and all the ones it feeds into? If there was no appetite for risk in a society, would there be any innovation?
I wonder if there’s an experiment we could use to see if some unethical behaviour is the product of aggressive personalities? In fact, we already have an idea. Paul Zak is the scientist known as Doctor Love for his research into trust and morality. He discovered that oxytocin plays a fundamental role in building trust between people: higher levels of oxytocin were correlated with higher levels of trust; furthermore, when people were given oxytocin, their levels of trust and trustworthiness increased. However, a small proportion of people don’t produce oxytocin and show little or no trust. These people might be more aggressive or manipulative. It would be interesting to measure the effect of success and poverty on oxytocin levels, which might shed light on some of the arguments described above. Oxytocin also helps create empathy, so perhaps we might find a biological reason why some drivers of posh cars cut pedestrians off.
In the meantime, though, humour me a little longer. I’d like to live in a world where everybody has the same philosophical outlook as me, but I don’t. We live in a biological system that we try to control through a series of social and legal rules, with the hope and expectation that if people abide by these, we will have stable and secure societies and economies. The reality is much different and perhaps we need to accept the variation that exists between individual people. After all, every living system has a homeostatic mechanism, but any system than actively requires balancing, also requires stressing, otherwise can it really be said to be alive at all?