Whatever Happened to Noblesse Oblige?

Here is a brief summary:

The “upper class,” as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to increase their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, researchers reported today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

From the study abstract:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than 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.

Tyler Cowen responds:

Let’s view these results in light of the literature as a whole (I haven’t seen any journalistic source do this). Very often in studies the highest trust, lowest corruption societies in the world are the relatively wealthy Nordic countries, not poor countries. There is plenty of evidence that it is low and falling incomes — not wealth — which helped to explain voter support for fascism. Consumers are eager to buy products from companies such as Apple, and they regard the wealth of the shareholders, and the high profit margins, as a sign they will get a high quality product, not a reason to fear a rip-off. (Can you think of many cases where consumers deliberately seek out lower-class suppliers to minimize the chance of rip-off?) The work of Garett Jones shows that high IQ predicts greater cooperativeness.

The entire Tyler post is worth reading. Here is Ezra Klein and again and Kevin Drum.

Comments (6)

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  1. Devon Herrick says:

    The study on upper-class honesty has some interesting findings. However, I suspect the authors aren’t really measuring what they think they are measuring. Moreover, their sample is not truly representative of the behaviors of lower- and upper-class people. Unethical people may often get ahead by pushing boundaries (think of an investment advisor who earns commissions by promoting financial products he/she knows are not appropriate for a retiree); but that doesn’t suggest all upper-income people arrived at their station in life by cheating. I can see how being part of the upper-class might result in some people developing a sense of entitlement that could cause them to become more demanding. But I can also see how lower-class people might feel the only way they can get ahead it to cheat in light of the “upper-class advantage.”

    I think Tyler makes an interesting point about Scandinavia. The amount of unethical behavior that is tolerated in a society is a function of societal norms. In some countries, the prevailing attitude is that it is OK for people to take advantage of you if you let them. In these societies, winners who engage in unethical behavior are not condemned; rather they are admired. Yet, behavior that is celebrated in one society is condemned in another. Rampant theft is common in some of poor countries. But it would be too simplistic to conclude that poverty causes theft any more than concluding wealth causes unethical behavior.

  2. Brian says:

    I wonder what these researchers would find if they compared lower and upper class people in other areas of behavior, such as beer consumption, public altercations, profanity usage, infidelity, hours watching television, hours watching Jerry Springer, etc.

    Not saying there is a reliable way to quantify any of that, but there is almost always some kind of a bias with respect to what behavior is being researched and compared by the researchers.

  3. Davie says:

    I did get a kick out of the “stealing candy from a baby” section. I tend to side with Tyler: these results, placed in a broader context, reveal the inadequacy of the scope and execution of the study.

  4. Paul H. says:

    Tyler’s response is interesting.

  5. Dayana Osuna says:

    Money buys power…and this study proves it.
    Money can’t buy happiness though. Maybe the next study should focus on showing whether high-class individuals are happier than lower-class individuals.
    It would be interesting to know the answer to that.

  6. Tom H. says:

    I agree with the above. Tyler’s rejoinder was very interesting.