The Myth of Noblesse Oblige

Dov Michaeli

Posted 3/4/12 on the Doctor Weighs In

In this season of hateful rhetoric and screams of “class warfare”, one cannot be blamed for perceiving people on the lower socioeconomic rungs as unprincipled, predatory, entitlements-moochers, and welfare cheats. President Reagan rode into office on the back of the “welfare queen” who, it turned out later, was invented out of whole cloth. But perceptions persist, and in politics perception trumps fact. Some social theorists even invoke Darwinism to describe the social environment of the lower classes as a Hobbsian, dog-eat-dog world. Except that in Darwin’s world dogs don’t eat dogs -they actually cooperate, which makes them extraordinarily successful hunters.

Recently, a raft of studies took a close look at the question of lower vs. upper socioeconomic behavioral patterns. And the results are truly amazing, albeit not surprising.

Ethical behavior

Remember the financial debacle of 2008? Of course you do! how could we forget? we are still living it. The bankers who concocted those schemes and robbed millions of people of their homes and livelihoods were certainly not unscrupulous lower class cheats. Yet, nobody went to jail. But I digress.

In a recent paper published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences  psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto, conducted seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods, which reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.

In the first of the studies, researchers concealed themselves close to a intersection in the Bay Area of San Francisco and spied on drivers who were expected to stop and wait their turn before driving on. Whenever a car arrived at the junction, the scientists ranked the driver’s class on a scale of one to five according to the model, age and appearance of the car. The relationship of these parameters to social class has been amply validated by many studies.

On average, 12.4% of the observed drivers failed to wait their turn and cut in front of other road users. Those in the less classy cars cut people up less than 10% of the time, but drivers in the most prestigious cars did so around one third of the time.

The researchers next recorded whether drivers stopped for a person who tried to walk across the junction using a pedestrian crossing. Drivers of the cheapest and oldest cars were most likely to slow down and give way, followed by those in average quality cars. But those in the most prestigious cars drove on regardless of the pedestrian around 45% of the time.

These are naturalistic studies, where the observation is made in a”real life” situation. One possible flaw is that in a complex natural environment other factors, somtimes unobvious, may confound the outcome. So laboratory experiments are in order, to confirm or reject the naturalistic observation. The researchers set up 5 such experiments. For these studies they determined socioeconomic status using the MacArthur Scale, a well-documented and widely-accepted measure.

In the  follow-on experiments they found that 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.  Some of the details are fascinating:

In one study, 105 volunteers were asked to read eight stories that implicated a character in taking something that wasn’t theirs, and comment on whether they would do the same. Their endorsement of wrongdoing rose with socioeconomic class, as ranked by income, education and occupation.

Another study had volunteers play a computer game that simulated five rolls of a dice. The participants were asked to write down their total score, and told that a high score might earn them a cash prize. Even though the game was rigged to give everyone a score of 12, more upper class than lower class people reported higher scores.

The “final blow” for me was the last study. The researchers placed a jar full of candy in front of the subjects and told them that it is meant for children in the adjoining lab but that they can help themselves to some. The number of candies taken out of the mouth of babes was in direct relationship to socioeconomic status. Have they no shame?

The authors try to offer explanations as to the why:

“Why are upper-class individuals more prone to unethical behavior, from violating traffic codes to taking public goods to lying? This finding is likely to be a multiply determined effect involving both structural and psychological factors. Upper-class individuals’ relative independence from others and increased privacy in their professions may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts. The availability of resources to deal with the downstream costs of unethical behavior may increase the likelihood of such acts among the upper class. In addition, independent self-construals among the upper class may shape feelings of entitlement and inattention to the consequences of one’s actions on others. A reduced concern for others’ evaluations and increased goal-focus could further instigate unethical tendencies among upper-class individuals. Together, these factors may give rise to a set of culturally shared norms among upper- class individuals that facilitates unethical behavior.”

But the rich contribute more to charity,right?

In another paper, titled Relation of sympathy and personal distress to pro-social behavior: A multimethod study. published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers questioned the widespread assumption that lower social class (or socioeconomic status) is associated with fewer resources, greater exposure to threat, and a reduced sense of personal control. Given these life circumstances, one might expect lower-class individuals to engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others.

The authors hypothesized, by contrast, that lower-class individuals orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile evironments, and that this orientation gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. Across four studies, lower-class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared to their upper-class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lowerclass individuals acted in more prosocial fashion due to a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.

There is still the question of cause and effect. Are upperclass people less honest and less charitable because they are upperclass, or are less they  upperclass Because they less charitable and more prone to cheat. My guess is the former; they feel that the social constraints that affect you and me can be broken with minimum consequences. Need evidence? Consider: none of the financial artists went to jail.

One thought on “The Myth of Noblesse Oblige

  1. Excellent reading! Someone should send this to the upperclass folks to read. I suspect they are too busy stealing candy from the babes.

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