Are Wealthy People Less Ethical?

“There is this mental frame of mind when you feel like you are at the top,” Keltner said. “You think you are above the law, you think you can get away with stuff and you won’t have to deal with the consequences. That’s what that study demonstrates.”

His jammed mailbox also confirms that, he added.

“Police officers have told me that drivers of fancy cars often lecture them when they pull them over for a ticket,” he said. “And construction guys tell me often that if they work at a really wealthy home, it’s hard to get paid, which is absurd.”

Keltner’s main line of research is on human goodness, not greed. He turned to this subject because he wanted to understand why people so often do the wrong thing, like eating candy meant for children.

The research addresses widespread concern over class differences and inequalities in this country. Vast wealth is now held by a tiny minority of Americans while the middle class slips toward poverty, according to numerous surveys.

A few at the top are indeed generous, as evidenced by Bill Gates and others. But it’s hard to escape the fact that when so few have so much, and so many have so little, something is really wrong in America, Keltner said.

Incidentally, when it comes to social status, Keltner is near the top. He is a super-achiever in two areas reflecting status: He is highly educated and holds a prestigious job. And he’s hardly poor, but when it comes to vehicular status, he flunks.

He drives a 13-year-old Subaru, and his wife drives a 17-year-old Honda Civic.

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