Rich People, Bad People: The Scientific Explanation of Why Money May Lead to Evil Actions

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Rich People, Bad People: The Scientific Explanation of Why Money May Lead to Evil Actions

A notion about rich people having wealth and privilege making them feel that they are above the law thus treating ours like they don't exist / Photo by Getty Images


The correlation of wealth, power, and corruption has recently become a major subject of interest among psychologists, The Washington Post states. In most findings, becoming part of the upper class implied a decrease in ethical behavior.

Unethical Characteristics of the Wealthy

“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. To the researchers who study wealth and power, it’s dismaying but not surprising, because it tracks so closely with our findings. The effect of power is sadly one of the most reliable laws of human behavior,” Dacher Keltner, a psychologist and co-author of the study Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior, points out.

In their research, they examined how social class is linked to unethical behavior. They said that most people would think that because the lower class live in places where there is a scarcity of resources, pose more risks for them and make them face great uncertainty, that they are more inclined to act unethically to be able to get more resources or counter their disadvantages. Contrary to this reasoning though, they found that the rich people have a higher probability of behaving unethically.

They write,”Greater resources, freedom and independence from others among the upper class give rise to the self-focused social cognitive tendencies… which we predict will facilitate unethical behavior.”

They performed an experiment involving 129 participants to assess whether being rich really makes people more inclined to act unethically. They first made their participants compare their wealth to other people who either had a higher or lower economic status than them. Afterwards, they provided the participants with candy jars which they said were meant for the children in the lab near them, but they also told them that they can have some of the candies in the jar if they wanted to. The ones who considered themselves wealthier after the financial comparisons were also shown to take more candy.

The study published in 2015 shows that when people amass excessive wealth, they are actually more likely to engage in immoral activities such as lying, cheating, and stealing. Ironically, despite the huge sums of money that they have, they are known to donate less than the middle class or those who have lower income. Researches reveal that those who are part of the upper class have the tendency to cheat on their taxes, partners, and games of chance. They also have the inclination to shoplift and tend to be less empathic.


Upper class family revealed to donate less compared to middle or lower income class and they have tendencies to cheat on their taxes, partners and game of chances / Photo by Getty Images


Wealth and Power

Another research echoes the same sentiment of Keltner and his team’s study. According to Adam Galinsky, Deborah Gruenfeld and Joe Magee, authors of the study From Power to Action, wealth and power make individuals more uninhibited, more prone to taking risks and feeling entitled and invulnerable.

The researchers argue that power and action are closely related since the concepts of power raises a person’s tendency to act even though in some cases it is not directly possessed, important or applicable.

Their definition of power was “..ability to control resources, own and others’ without social interference.” Further into the study, they state that power leads to action because the people from the powerful upper class are more independent in terms of getting and maintaining social resources and that it (power) triggers a certain behavioral system that makes them less inhibited.

Galinsky explains that wealth is an enabler of power and that power makes people feel more liberated. It removes any established restrictions of society on a person and “frees people to act on their dominant desires.”



The result of their study shows that these dominant desires may not be always bad. For some, it led them to become more altruistic and being better philanthropists. However, most of the time, the power that they have gained from their wealth causes them to become more self-serving. Power makes them more unconcerned about laws and the effects of their actions on other people.

Influence of Rich People and Their Ethics

Michael Kraus, a social psychologist from Yale’s School of Management urges people to pay more attention to the ethics of the influential upper class because their actions have a more magnified effect on others. He states that there are debates on the exact effects of wealth, whether they are good or bad, and the scope of its effects. He also adds that thae studies on the matter still leave unanswered questions.

Kraus stresses, “There’s a lot of reasons why we should care about the ethics of wealthy… 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 government and banks involved. You start getting into an area where it can affect the whole country and democracy.”




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