(Health.com) -- Since the economic implosion of 2008, the news has been littered with accounts of questionable behavior in boardrooms, corner offices, and other gold-plated spaces. What's not clear from the headlines, however, is whether white-collar criminals like Bernard Madoff are bad apples or extreme examples of a widespread trend.
A new study may offer a clue to answering that question: A series of experiments conducted by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that people who are socially and financially better-off are more likely to lie, cheat, and otherwise behave unethically compared to individuals who occupy lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
"Elevated wealth status seems to make you want even more, and that increased want leads you to bend the rules or break the rules to serve your self-interest," says Paul Piff, the lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in psychology at the university.
The research team's findings, which appear this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were drawn from seven separate experiments that together included more than 1,000 people from all walks of life.
Piff and his colleagues used a variety of measures to gauge the participants' socioeconomic status, such as education levels, annual income (which ranged from about $16,000 to $150,000), and the participants' own perception of their social standing. Regardless of the measure used, however, higher-status people tended to behave in ways that served their own self-interest.
In the first two experiments, the researchers took to the sidewalks near Berkeley and investigated the relationship between car type -- a reliable, if crude, measure of status -- and driver behavior.
Drivers with shinier, newer, and more expensive cars were more likely to cut off other motorists at a busy four-way stop and less likely to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. Roughly 45% of people driving cars the researchers deemed "high status" ignored a pedestrian, compared to just 30% of those in more modest vehicles.
In another experiment, a group of college students were asked to rate how willing they were to engage in unethical behavior in various everyday scenarios -- such as taking a ream of printer paper from the office where they work, failing to correct a cashier's error in their favor, or accepting ill-gotten tips about an upcoming exam.
The results echoed the driving experiments. Students who saw themselves as being higher on the socioeconomic ladder were more likely than their peers to say they would make a less-than-honorable decision in the hypothetical situations.
These findings don't show that unethical behavior is somehow ingrained in people of higher status, Piff says. However, he says, they do suggest that small changes in a situation or environment cause people of varying backgrounds to express their instincts and values in different ways.
"We're not saying you should distrust the rich, or the rich are corrupt," says Piff. "Instead, this highlights the disparities in social environments -- that different positions occupied give rise to almost natural tendencies and divergent social values."
What accounts for this divergence? The independence offered by financial security may foster a sense of entitlement and a lack of concern for others, the authors suggest. On a more concrete level, affluent people may be more likely to get away with misbehavior (because they are less supervised at work, for example), and they may be more willing to take ethical risks because they have the resources to bail themselves out -- both literally and figuratively -- if they get caught.
Then again, there may be a simpler explanation: greed. The researchers found that unethical behavior was closely related to positive feelings about greed. Although the connection appeared to be strongest among high-status individuals, even lower-status individuals were more prone to ethical lapses if they felt that greed was good.
Study participants, for instance, were more likely to cheat on a dice game or mislead a hypothetical job candidate about an available position if they agreed strongly with a series of greed-related statements, such as "To be a successful person in this society, it is important to make use of every opportunity" and "It is not morally bad to think first of one's own benefit and not other people's."
The study findings aren't black-and-white. Robert Gore, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Alliant International University, in San Francisco, says that class, status, and ethics are all slippery concepts that are difficult to pin down in experiments, even those -- like the driving ones -- that make use of real-world situations.
"Not everyone who is coded as relatively high social class drives a luxury car," Gore says. "Luxury car drivers are a subset of the well-to-do, and we all know people who drive cars they can't really afford."
In addition, Gore says, experiments that test people's willingness to behave unethically only say so much about their day-to-day behavior. "This study really shows that people who identify as higher social class are more likely to admit unethical behavior," he says. "It's not clear whether they actually behave worse or just claim to."
Piff and his colleagues acknowledge the limitations of the study. At the same time, Piff says, the fact that seven different experiments all produced similar results helps "eliminate alternative explanations." And, as the study notes, the pattern held after the researchers took into account factors such as age, sex, ethnicity, and religious and political affiliations, all of which are associated with ethics and values.
Copyright Health Magazine 2011