The powerful cheat for themselves, the powerless cheat for others The upper class isn't less ethical, just more likely to lie for selfish reasons.
Research has previously shown that upper-class individuals are more likely to behave unethically than lower-class people. But, says David Dubois, lead researcher of a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it’s not that simple: both groups behave unethically in different contexts.
Dubois’ research group found that people with higher socioeconomic status (SES) were more likely to behave unethically when the behavior benefitted themselves, while lower-SES people were more likely to be unethical to benefit other individuals. "Many people think of unethical behaviour in terms of selfish behavior—violating moral standards to give yourself an advantage," explains Jared Piazza, who was not involved with the research. "But the researchers here draw a distinction between violating a moral standard like 'it’s wrong to steal' to benefit others, and violating a moral standard to benefit yourself."
This distinction is important, says Dubois. Previous research has only tested unethical behavior that is selfish—it turns out that when unselfish unethical behavior is tested too, lower-SES individuals are just as likely to be unethical......
Beyond clarifying these points, there are questions to follow up in the future, Dubois adds. For one, this paper didn’t look at the effect of power or SES on the amount of unethical behavior. That is, the researchers looked at how people would behave in a single test, but not at whether a certain group was more likely to be unethical more of the time. There’s also the possibility that different cultures with different moral codes and ideas about power and responsibility might respond differently.
It could have useful application in persuasion, he adds: communicating with different audiences about ethical behavior could emphasize different consequences, either for the self or for others, to discourage the behavior."
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