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Are Rich People Less Likely To Be Ethical?

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The investigation that revealed a number of wealthy families including Hollywood celebrities who were funneling tens of thousands of dollars at least to high level universities to get their kids in has renewed public questions about power and money. Is this an example of the rich and powerful using status and influence in unethical ways? University of Michigan professor David Mayer has researched and studied whether people who are wealthier are less likely to be ethical at least when it comes to some actions and decisions. And he's with me via Skype. David, does your research help you draw firm conclusions about wealthy people and ethics?

DAVID MAYER: Well actually I have a considerable amount of research showing that people who are higher income or higher socioeconomic status, that they are more likely to engage in various types of unethical behavior. So the college admissions scam is a salient example from current day but we've found this in research for, you know, the past decade or more.

GOLDSTEIN: Has the research been done as to whether these are folks who have come from wealthy families, who've been wealthy for generations or those who have maybe hit it big more recently?

MAYER: Yeah that's a good question. So in general, it doesn't distinguish between those. There's been more research lately on trying to understand people who are sort of status jumper, or they're going up or down in the sort of wealth or status hierarchy but here, most of the research they haven't been taking that into account, just sort of an overall income or some other cue. For example, some interesting research have found that by looking at the cars people drive, that people who drive cars that, like a BMW or Mercedes, that they were three times more willing to cut off pedestrians at an intersection and four times more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection. So that's another way, a sort of a proxy that's used to get at wealth.

GOLDSTEIN: You mentioned the driving situation. Are there other obvious categories that come to mind when we think about different categories of behavior, if we say well that person behaved unethically in this particular setting?

MAYER: So is it more likely that this would happen, you know, at work or at home?

GOLDSTEIN: Right, right.

MAYER: Not necessarily. I think that whatever areas that are sort of most important to someone as sort of a sign of their status, those are going to be the domains where people are going to be much more concerned about possibly going down, you know, in the status hierarchy. So I think that's perhaps why we've seen that some with the wealthy parents and their children. Because what your offspring do has important implications for your own status. But we do see that in other domains. If someone highly identifies with work, for example, and that's a big status symbol, that might be an area where this would be more likely to come up or someone would be unethical.

GOLDSTEIN: And would this unethical behavior be done primarily or almost exclusively to maintain status? Is it ever done to, I don't know, to help other people out? Or is it usually sort of an underhanded situation that would definitely benefit one person or that person's core family?

MAYER: Well, so it's both. We do find that people on average are more likely to do something unethical if they feel like it does benefit someone else. Scott Wiltermuth at USC has interesting research showing that if someone else is sort of gaining from your unethical actions, it provides essentially an additional justification for why that would be okay. So we do see that. We also have some research showing that women are more likely to be unethical when advocating for someone else, as opposed to their own self-interest and that men are more likely to be unethical essentially when advocating for their own wishes and desires. So we do see some differences and the idea that we might be more likely to do this when it benefits someone else, that would be consistent with a lot of our findings.

GOLDSTEIN: What is the reaction generally of the public to unethical behavior by wealthy people?

MAYER: In general, our initial reaction is moral outrage that people who are wealthy who already seem like they have so many advantages, whether it be paying for, you know, extra test prep classes or what have you, that they would do something else to give another advantage tends to be really upsetting to people. Think within the context of Donald Trump. It's interesting, I think it really is split again on partisan lines. So we often use this term "motivated reasoning." So we're motivated to come to a particular conclusion that often aligns with our own goals or our own self-interest. And so I think what happens there is for the people who do not like Trump, some of his behavior makes us say, "Oh, another example of someone who is wealthy, who had all this money given to him from his father, seems like he's entitled." And for others, I think they feel like he actually is an example of the American dream, even — and they can maybe forget about the fact that he actually was given a lot of money early on but that, it fits within their own values, it fits with their political ideology. And so I don't think they focus as much on some of the some of the negative behaviors from him. So again I think it starts from what's our underlying motivation from the beginning and then we can interpret someone's actions in line with what we what we thought initially.

GOLDSTEIN: I think we can throw out certain examples of people who are extremely wealthy who are doing all sorts of altruistic things. They're donating money to hospitals. They're putting their names on things. They're giving money to charity. Are those exceptions that prove the rule or does that sort of go in a different category from ethics there?

MAYER: No, I think like, I would think of the, not just the bad behaviors but the good behaviors — the helping or volunteering or donating. You know, I put them in the same bucket of ethical conduct. I think that those examples are clearly there. And I do have a more optimistic take. In general, most people are not lying, stealing and cheating. And wealthy people as well and do care about the contribution they make in society. I think this research is, on wealth, just shows sort of the relative behavior between people who are lower income and those who are wealthier. And if you compare those groups, we tend to see more unethical behavior and less of that donating, volunteering behavior among wealthier people. But it doesn't mean that that's the norm.

GOLDSTEIN: David Mayer is a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.