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How good is greed for the rich?

By Judy Martel · Bankrate.com
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Posted: 6 pm ET

Would you say the rich or the poor are more likely to break the law while driving, support unethical behavior at work and even take candy from children? Turns out, it's the rich, according to a series of seven experiments conducted by researchers and reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Perhaps it’s a feeling of entitlement that gives the rich a sense of being above the law for minor infractions. Or perhaps Gordon Gekko lives on, fictional hero to many as the unscrupulous leverage-buyout king in Oliver Stone's 1987 movie "Wall Street". "Greed is good," he intoned in arguably the most famous line in the film.

In fact, the wealthy have a harder time recognizing the effect of their actions on others, and privilege leads them to become more insulated from society, says one of the study's authors, Paul Piff, Ph.D candidate in psychology. “It's not that the rich are innately bad," Piff told Bloomberg. It’s just that as they rise in the ranks, they become more "self-focused." The poor, by contrast, rely more on their community for support, he theorizes, so they are more aware of their actions socially.

The experiments, all measuring minor infractions, included a computer game in which the rich reported scores that were higher than the highest attainable -- all for a $50 prize. Other tests involved observing more expensive cars versus cheaper ones at a San Francisco intersection to see which drivers obeyed traffic laws and an observation of who took candy that was identified as being set aside for children.

Granted, the study only attempts to measure bad behavior, not crime, and previous studies have shown a link between poverty and violent crime. The study's authors also point out that drivers of expensive cars in the San Francisco study may not necessarily be rich and that in the candy test, participants were told they could partake of the candy even though the children were waiting for it.

The wealthy, particularly those who rise through the ranks to attain a higher status, may have internalized the "greed is good" ethos, Pitt suggests, leading them to brush off minor ethical infractions and become less engaged socially.

Would you expect a rich person to behave more unethically than a poor person?

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