Taking Candy from Babies and Other Unethical Acts

candy from baby

It’s either synchronicity or my narrow focus at work, but I am caught up in an interesting stream of news. My last post tells of the stressed Wall Streeters, who are getting lowered bonuses, complaining of their unfortunate lot in life. The one prior to that was about altruism and whether it was nature or nurture (a little of both). Today the post is based on a report of psychological research arguing that wealth and other elite privileges create a kind of moral breakdown. In research just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (subscription only), Piff and colleagues have demonstrated that people in socioeconomic elite (measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) are more likely than lower class folk to cheat, break traffic laws, and behave unethically.

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, 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. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

Fascinating discovery. Maybe this can explain why our national politicians lie so much. As a group, they are clearly in the upper economic class, with average net worths more than 9 times that of the average citizen. I wonder if the incidence of adultery is higher, also. Money is certainly corrupting, but now we find that it also increases the chance of disobeying the no-turn-on-red warning signs.

I looked at a few other related news pieces to make sure I was not taking this work out of context; I had only the abstract (above) to go on. Several warned that the methodology was flawed and that some of the results needed a bit of skepticism, but no one seemed to deny the general drift of the findings.

The authors denied that they were waging a class war, and noted that the research also included suggestions about how to cope with this tendency. Speculating that a lack of empathy for others was part of the explanation of the behavior, they suggested some sort of empathy training. I wrote a related piece a few weeks ago based on other research showing that the rich were less empathetic. It makes sense. Greed turns one inward and sees others merely as means to their ends. As people become seen more as objects, not as other human beings, they will be treated by the amoral rules of liberal (free) markets. Cheating is not seen as a wrong, but merely an action designed to gain the upper economic hand. Fairness, rightness, or responsibility are not part of the motivating chain for the act; fairness rules do not apply to a “thing.”

The more our political economy and culture lean to the unmitigated “free” market and radical individualism, the more that this model of behavior is likely to show up. And once present it will be exceedingly hard to reverse. Another article quotes the principal author, Piff, as saying: “… the study may shed light on the hotly debated topic of income inequality. “Our findings suggest that if the pursuit of self-interest goes unchecked, it may result in a vicious cycle: self-interest leads people to behave unethically, which raises their status, which leads to more unethical behavior and inequality.”

The data of Wilkinson and Pickett, (The Spirit Level) show that the US is already at the extreme end of economic inequality among developed nations. The US exhibits the worst social and human performance by a number of metrics. Their results, developed by an epidemiological method, cannot be used to establish cause/effect relationships. These new studies now add a causal foundation for their shocking work. Taken together they paint a most unflattering, even shameful, picture of the US and our current cultural values. This body of work explains, in part, why shame is not enough these days to act as a stimulus to return to a societal context of ethical behavior and empathetic appreciation of others. Joseph Welch, where are you? Fairness and other foundational moral constructs of the nation have become so corrupted or lost that they often seem, to me, to be out of reach. Any talk about sustainability that lacks an understanding of this hole in our societal fabric hasn’t a chance of working.

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David M Carter said:

One line in this piece jumps out at me: And once present it will be exceedingly hard to reverse. This was written in the context of radical individualism. If radical individualism in this context implies the application of extrinsic values over intrinsic values, then I agree wholeheartedly with your statement.

Psychological research under the rubric of Self-Determination Theory has shown that the more one adopts an extrinsic value/reward system, the more detached they become from intrinsic values and rewards. It is possible that this detachment may have a physiological basis - the development if neural networks that may be heritable and/or dominant via epigenetics. Regardless of the ways in which careless behavior is manifest, it is very hard to stop once it becomes a primary force in the way we interact with other humans and life forms. The exploits of the Cardasians should be a warning cry that our species is off track, and becoming less able to find the right track.