When Paul Piff’s research first came out in 2012, it seemed to reinforce the opinion that swindling executives were at the root of society’s indigestion. Through seven different experiments that included 1053 individuals, Piff showed that higher class individuals (as measured by income, education, and occupational prestige) were much more likely to behave in ethically dishonest ways (1).
Higher-class individuals were more likely to:
- Cheat in a rigged game of chance (unbeknownst to them, how embarrassing…)
- Take candy from children (albeit hypothetical ones)
- Condone unethical behavior, such as keeping change for a twenty after paying with a $10 bill
- Cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk (thereby breaking the law, according to vehicle code section 21950a)
- Cut off other vehicles at a four-way stop (again, breaking the law, sections 21451, 21453, and 21800a&b)
It made no difference whether individuals had made their own success or were born into privilege.
Personal aside: I’m thankful that CA police chose not to give “failure to yield” tickets when I was in high school, otherwise I would likely be biking to work. In Dallas. Which is just asking to be smooshed by a bus or wayward train.
They did, however, make our parents sign warnings for jaywalking in the eighth grade.
But this past week I had the opportunity to hear Paul Piff speak on the subject, and there seems to be another way to look at this, and it isn’t that income equality is doomed because of the hooligans inhabiting corner offices.
Investigators found that a simple 46-second video reminding individuals of the needs of others (imagine a St. Jude’s or Feeding America commercial here) was able to eliminate the class difference in behavior (3). Similarly, just asking higher class individuals to relate to the less fortunate resulted in equally ethical behavior across both groups.
So behavior is modifiable! There is hope! And successful people are just as ethical as everyone else, they just need a gentle reminder sometimes.
In other news, Prius hybrids were just as likely as BMWs to violate crosswalk laws.