A RAFT of studies into unethical behaviour across the social classes has delivered a withering verdict on the upper echelons of society. Privileged people behaved consistently worse than others in a range of situations, with a greater tendency to lie, cheat, take things meant for others, cut off other road users, not stop for pedestrians on crossings, and endorse unethical behaviour, researchers found.
Psychologists at the University of California in Berkeley drew their unflattering conclusions after covertly observing people's behaviour in the open and in a series of follow-up studies in the laboratory.
Describing their work in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, social psychologist Paul Piff and his colleagues at the Institute of Personality and Social Research claim that self-interest may be a ''more fundamental motive among society's elite'' that leads to more wrongdoing. They say selfishness may be ''a shared cultural norm''.
The scientists also found a strong link between social status and greed, a connection they suspect might exacerbate the economic gulf between the rich and poor. The work builds on previous research that suggests the upper classes are less cognisant of others, worse at reading other people's emotions and less altruistic than individuals in lower social classes.
''If you occupy these higher echelons, you start to see yourself as more entitled, and develop a heightened self-focus,'' Mr Piff said. ''Your social environment is likely more buffered against the impact of your actions, and you might not perceive the risks of your behaviour because you are better resourced, you have the money for lawyers and so on.''
In one study, 105 volunteers were asked to read eight stories that implicated a character in taking something that wasn't theirs, and comment on whether they would do the same. Their endorsement of wrongdoing rose with socio-economic class, as ranked by income, education and occupation.
Another study had volunteers play a computer game that simulated five rolls of a dice. The participants were asked to write down their total score, and told that a high score might earn them a cash prize. Even though the game was rigged to give everyone a score of 12, more upper-class than lower-class people reported higher scores.
''Upper and lower class individuals do not necessarily differ in terms of their capacity for unethical behaviour, but rather in terms of their default tendencies towards it,'' the authors wrote.