The Rich Aren’t Necessarily Jerks


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It’s a common assertion by some people that the rich are obviously awful people. Some psychology research (especially that of Paul Piff) seems to confirm that wealth makes us worse people. However, a new study casts doubt on some of these findings, demonstrating that the field of psychology is still having replication problems. “In contrast [to Piff’s work],” write the authors,

a recent large-scale study indicated positive associations between social ranking and prosocial behaviour (Korndörfer, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2015), and further research has supported that individuals from higher SES are more generous than individuals from lower SES (Smeets, Bauer, & Gneezy, 2015). Other studies have detected a more nuanced link, where general relations between class and ethical behaviour are not evident without the presence of moderators, such as level of social inequality in the community and the social class of the target (Côté, House, & Willer, 2015; Trautmann, van de Kuilen, & Zeckhauser, 2013; Van Doesum, Tybur, & Van Lange, 2017). Finally, other research has found no relation between social class and ethical behaviour (Van Doesum, Tybur, & Van Lange, 2017).

The authors “attempted to directly replicate Piff et al.’s Study 5 (2012),” which tested individuals’ willingness to lie in a negotiation task.

In an effort to increase experimental power, the present studies sought to increase sample size from 108 to 270 (i.e., 2.5 times larger), which is considered the current standard for replication protocols (Simonsohn, 2015). We collected two independent samples in an effort to provide more opportunity to replicate the original results (e.g., larger number of participants across samples helps mitigate issues associated with sampling error).

Their results?

Some of our findings were consistent with those of Piff et al., such as the significant relations between attitudes toward greed and unethical behaviour (i.e., dishonesty) as well as between social class and greed (in sample 2 only), but we did not obtain any evidence of a positive association between social class and unethical behaviour in either sample. Further, we found inconclusive evidence for the mediation model proposed by Piff et al. across the two samples.

Perhaps the crucifixion of the rich isn’t the most empirically-based idea.