How does being rich affect the way someone behaves toward others?

Older man in a suit takes a phone call while leaning against a car

About a dozen years ago, this question launched a series of studies by Paul Piff and his colleagues—among them Dacher Keltner, Greater Good’s founding director. In the studies, people of different socioeconomic status were given opportunities to lie, cheat, or act unethically in various situations, and then observed to see how they behaved. The findings overall led to the conclusion that wealthier people are less likely to act generously (and more likely to act selfishly and unethically) when given a chance. Other studies seemed to corroborate this idea.

This news made headlines, with articles claiming that the rich were less empathic, were more motivated by greed, and would even go so far as to steal candy from a baby. No doubt, these articles titillated some readers, who enjoyed seeing the rich taken down a notch or two. But do the findings hold up? A new study aimed to find out.

Expensive cars, selfish drivers?

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In the new study, researchers did their best to replicate part of Piff’s 2012 study in which drivers in Berkeley, California, were observed at busy intersections to see whether they would cut off other drivers or fail to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Research assistants noted the make of cars passing through the intersection, which was taken as a sign of the driver’s socioeconomic status. They also looked at whether traffic was heavy or light, which might affect how willing people were to act ethically.

In the replication study, researchers followed the same protocol but improved upon it by observing more cars (about 2.5 times the original number) and pre-registering the study—something that increases the strength of any findings and can help eliminate bias. (In preregistered studies, researchers decide in advance how a study will be conducted and analyzed, rather than making changes as they go, and they share their protocols openly with other researchers.) They also directed research assistants to observe every other car coming into the intersection rather than allowing them to select which cars to test.

After analyzing the results, the authors found no relationship between the make of the car and unethical behavior. The driver’s estimated social status had no bearing on whether they tried to cut another person off or whether they stopped to let a pedestrian pass. This was true in spite of traffic conditions and the apparent sex and age of the driver.

These new findings call into question the presumed connection between wealth and unethical behavior.

“We did [the observations] many times, very carefully, and we just never found this original effect,” says coauthor Paul Smeets of the University of Amsterdam.

Though this may seem surprising to some, Smeets had anticipated this possibility, given that some prior studies looking at how wealth affects unethical behavior had not found any connection. Even other studies that had tried to replicate Piff’s exact procedures or reanalyze his original results were unsuccessful in showing that socioeconomic status affects our generosity, trust, and morality. Plus, some of Smeets’s graduate students had done field studies in busy intersections in European cities and found no connection between car make and driving behavior.

“I was surprised when we didn’t see it at first,” he says. “But then when we didn’t see it many times, I was less surprised.”

Why the findings don’t align

It’s unclear why Piff’s findings were so different from Smeets’s. Smeet speculates that people could have changed their behavior in the intervening years, and that may explain why they weren’t replicable. Or there may have been some other variable that affected results.

Either way, he says, his findings don’t discount Piff’s findings; they just don’t confirm them, either.

“The original article is still quoted as saying, ‘Rich people behave more unethically,’” he says. “At least we can say that that’s not always the case.”

Piff is also not sure why the original findings didn’t replicate. But it’s possible that traffic made a difference, he says; unethical behavior is more likely to occur at the most heavily trafficked intersections, where people may be rushing to work and have more reason to beat the system. In Smeets’s study, the intersections weren’t as busy as in the original study, he says.

“You’re a lot more likely to cut in line in a grocery store if there’s eight people in the line than if there’s just one other person in the line,” says Piff. “They didn’t control for or account for those kinds of incentives.”

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Piff also wonders if people may have changed their outlook in the intervening years since his original study. For example, he’s seen research showing that, overall, people have become more compassionate about the plight of others since the pandemic. Perhaps wealthier people have become more aware of the people around them, making them change their behavior, he says.

“Maybe, as people became more vulnerable in their own lives and were more sympathetic toward others during the pandemic, you’d see these patterns attenuate in the real world,” he says.

Even so, Piff is not convinced that there aren’t real differences in how more affluent people behave. Lots of other research has found that people with more power and wealth pay less attention to those around them and are less empathic and compassionate, which could influence how they respond in circumstances where they have to consider another’s viewpoints. And others have replicated his studies—even the driver’s study—with similar results to his.

“I still feel that the science points to broad differences in how people from different backgrounds behave and how they attend to others,” says Piff. “I don’t think [Smeets’s] findings should be taken as a unilateral statement on the serious and significant differences between those that have and those that don’t.”

Stereotyping rich people

Still, it’s hard to parse the research, given strong evidence both for and against unethical behavior from folks of higher socioeconomic status. That’s why replication studies can be important in the search for understanding what’s going on. They call into question certain assumptions and help us to dig deeper.

Unfortunately, though, replication studies don’t always get their due, says Smeets. After provocative findings make headlines, they are often planted in the public’s mind, and it’s hard to dispel them—even when new evidence is presented.

“Most of the time, the general public doesn’t hear about replication research, and they just stick with the original idea,” he says. “Once you have an idea, then you are looking for evidence that supports it, and maybe you are not so critical anymore about evidence that goes against people’s intuition.”

Why does this matter so much? Because people can be overly cynical about the kind and generous behavior of rich people, believing that they are acting for selfish or nefarious reasons, says Smeets. The idea that the wealthy act badly when given the chance is a stereotype, he says, that, as far as he is concerned, is not completely supported by research.

He would like to see the research move away from focusing on character flaws with rich people or stereotyping them as selfish. His own research has found that richer people often act more generously with others, both with their time and their money—not because they are better in some way, but because they are in a position to do so.

“I would not agree with the statement that rich people are bad or good; I just think that there is no difference depending on how much money they have,” he says.

Though Piff may disagree with Smeets’s assessment, he, too, is cautious about assuming that the wealthier are categorically unethical. He acknowledges that studies in a laboratory don’t always translate into real-world behavior, where many other factors can come into play.

Smeets agrees. He would like researchers to look at the environmental factors that affect behavior—particularly the ones that might encourage rich people to give away more of their assets to help others. He believes that the rich do, indeed, act generously and ethically when given the chance, but may need nudging in the right direction.

“I’d like to see how we can encourage wealthy people to donate even more, because I think that’s a constructive agenda,” he says. “If you have so much, you have a moral obligation to share some of your money. I’d rather encourage that than call them evil.”

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