A growing body of research on wealth, power and their effects on human behavior reveals that the rich are more likely to steal, cheat and have an overall sense of entitlement than those who fall lower on the wealth ladder.
Dacher Keltner, a University of California at Berkeley psychologist who studied wealth, power and privilege for decades, told The Washington Post the “effect of power is sadly one of the most reliable laws of human behavior”.
Six years ago, Keltner and a then-graduate student in his lab, Paul Piff, published influential innovative experiments that confirmed many of our worst assumptions about the rich and the corrupting power of wealth.
In one experiment, the researchers stationed themselves at a busy intersection with four-way stop signs and tracked the model of every car whose driver cut off others instead of waiting their turn. People driving expensive cars — like a brand-new Mercedes — were four times more likely to ignore right-of-way laws than those in cheap cars like an old beat-up Honda.
Next, they had a researcher play a pedestrian trying to cross at a crosswalk and tracked which cars stopped as the law requires and which blew right past him. The results were even more stark.
Half of the drivers of expensive cars ignored the pedestrian in the crosswalk — some even after making eye contact — but every last driver of cheaper cars stopped.
“It told us that there’s something about wealth and privilege that makes you feel like you’re above the law, that allows you to treat others like they don’t exist,” Keltner said.
Keltner’s studies are part of a growing body of research attempting to quantify the effects of wealth and power on human behavior.
That research has shown the rich cheat more on their taxes. They cheat more on their romantic partners. The wealthy and better-educated are more likely to shoplift. They are more likely to cheat at games of chance. They are often less empathetic. In studies of charitable giving, it is often the lower-income households that donate higher proportions of their income than middle-class and many upper-income folk.
"Wealth is basically a mechanism for power, and power has a freeing effect on people. It takes away the constraints of society and frees people to act according to their dominant desires," said Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School, whose experiments have explored how power often propels people's actions. In some cases, those desires may be altruistic or helpful to society, so power heightens those goals and can give rise to effective philanthropists. Often, however, power leads to self-serving behaviors unrestrained by the usual concerns over rules or the consequences for others.
Research on the topic is still relatively new, and researchers are far from having reached consensus on how and to what degree wealth and power affect human behavior.
But Michael Kraus, a social psychologist at Yale's School of Management, said regardless how different or similar wealthy people are to the less wealthy, understanding their ethics is still important.
"There's a lot of reasons we should care about the ethics of wealthy people," Kraus said. "Even if research found that they were no more unethical as anyone else, their influence on the world is so much greater. If someone like me steals something, it only affects only a handful of people. But if someone like Manafort steals or lies or cheats, it affects so many more people. There are foreign governments and banks involved. You start getting into that area where it can affect the whole country and the course of democracy."