Thursday, March 8, 2012

High Class - Low Behavior: Official Study

In this report, scientists, whom I would normally hold in the highest regard among individuals in any group (cue the Professor from Gilligan’s Island), are acting like common swindlers and thugs.

This combination of "seven survey, experimental, and naturalistic" studies purports to show that people of high social class tend to behave more unethically than lower class individuals mostly due to their appraisal of greed. Let’s break down these terms a little in accordance with the support materials given at the end of the study.

High Social Class
Study 4. Manipulation of social-class rank. For the manipulation of social-class rank (2), participants were presented with an image of a ladder with 10 rungs and given the following instructions:
“Think of the ladder as representing where people stand in the United States. These are people who are the worst (best) off— those who have the least (most) money, least (most) education, and the least (most) respected jobs. In particular, we’d like you to think about how YOU ARE DIFFERENT FROM THESE PEOPLE in terms of your own income, educational history, and job status. Where would you place yourself on this ladder relative to these people at the very bottom (top)? Please place a large ‘X’ on the rung where you think you stand.” After indicating where they feel they stood relative to those at the very bottom or very top of the ladder, participants received the following directions:
“Now imagine yourself in a getting acquainted interaction with one of the people you just thought about from the ladder above. Think about how the DIFFERENCES BETWEEN YOU might impact what you would talk about, how the interaction is likely to go, and what you and the other person might say to each other. Please write a brief description about how you think this interaction would go.”
Even better than those people you placed on the ladder above you who think they’re so much better than you implied instructions for Study 4, Studies 1 and 2 used the perceived status of an automobile to equate “higher class” drivers with their unethical behavior. In other words, if someone buys a super expensive car and drives like an entitled ass, all people who have the education and or funds to buy that car (determined previously to define a higher social class) are the equivalent entitled asses.

But the perceived status of a car is the concern of an altruistic tendency to look at others for one’s self-worth. Driving a high-priced car like an entitled ass has more to do with the "status" of the car than the money, education, or job (i.e. social class as defined by this study) one might have in order to buy such a vehicle. 

Propensity to Engage in Unethical Behavior 
To assess individual propensities to engage in unethical behavior (6), participants were instructed to indicate how likely they would be to engage in each of the listed behaviors on a scale ranging from 1 (very unlikely) to 7 (very likely). These behaviors were:
1. Use office supplies, Xerox machine, and stamps for personal purposes.
2. Make personal long-distance phone calls at work.
3. Waste company time surfing on the internet, playing computer games, and socializing.
4. Borrow $20 from a cash register overnight without asking.
5. Take merchandise and/or cash home.
6. Give merchandise away for free to personal friends.
7. Abuse the company expense accounts and falsify accounting records.
8. Receive gifts, money, and loans (bribery) from others due to one’s position and power.
9. Lay off 500 employees to save the company money and increase one’s personal bonus.
10. Overcharge customers to increase sales and earn a higher bonus.
11. Give customers “discounts” first and then secretively charge them more money later (bait and switch).
12. Make more money by deliberately not letting clients know about their benefits.
These are simply ridiculous. How were they weighted? I would guess that every employee has done 1-3 (although, I wouldn't think that long-distance is a concern any longer) at some time in the past. Scenarios 4-6 are straightforward theft, while numbers 7-12 are clearly presented as outright fraud. How many folks have reached the level of responsibility where they would have the need to fire 500 employees? To save the company money? Yes. That might need to happen in certain situations. But, that’s not enough. The researches needed to add that in addition to saving the company money, the person doing the firing would also get a bigger bonus. Also "overcharge" customers to increase sales? You mean increase mark-up for high demand goods with higher profits in mind? Nope. Because you "earn a higher bonus" is added in #10. 

But this is the really the heart of the matter.

The researchers determined that greed accounted for the unethical behavior of the participants in Studies 5, 6, and 7. How did they define greed? 
Measure of attitudes toward greed. For the measure of attitudes toward greed (4), participants indicated their agreement with each of the following items on a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). These items were:
 1. To be a successful person in this society, it is important to make use of every opportunity.
2. It is not morally bad to think first of one’s own benefit and not other people’s.
3. One should be concerned with the benefit to the group as a whole rather than with one’s own benefit. (Reverse-scored)
4. An individual’s pursuit of self-interest should be allowed only insofar as it will not jeopardize the public welfare. (Reverse scored)
5. I like competition.
6. It is very disgusting to exploit other people to further one’s own self-interest. (Reverse-scored)
7. There should be more emphasis in school on the kind of education which helps students to be more concerned with the welfare of the society or groups rather than their own personal benefit. (Reverse-scored) 
Could these questions be more loaded toward collectivists?  What do you think is meant by exploit in #6? To employ to the greatest possible advantage? This would then be just a restatement of #1 with a red-flag word. 

But it is statement #7 which encapsulates the entire study: individualism is bad; collectivism is good.

This would all be laughable if the headlines of such studies did not seep into the culture as fact and if the findings were not then used by politicians and bureaucrats as proof that somehow we must all be less greedy people and the government is just the institution to nudge us to fulfill our best selves.

Shame on the people who present this as science, on the people who report their presentation as science, and on the people who blindly accept collectivism as the moral primary over self-interest. 


Stephen Bourque said...

Nice job uncovering this junk masquerading as science. I think you put your finger on the real motivation behind the "study" when you pointed out the attack on individualism in the "greed" section.

Statement #7 is nothing short of a mission statement for schools: Hobble children so that they cannot think for themselves, but pliantly fall in line with state-sanctioned behavior.

RealistTheorist said...

That's a real boondoggle of a study, and tax-payer funded NSF is pushing it.

The sad thing is that the author (Paul Piff) has probably accepted the bromides about selfishness and so on so thoroughly that he really thinks he's not making too big a leap in his questions.

Lynne said...

Thanks for the comment, Realist Theorist.

I think the real tragedy is not that the author believes the piffle, but that a great many of us unquestioningly accept the false the morality of altruism presented in these types of studies, as the foundation of service requirements of our public schools high schools, and behind the increasing "civic engagement" push in colleges.

The monster which requires you to act for others' benefit before your own feeds upon itself. Its vile aim -- the destruction of self -- must be better understood.

Steve D said...

And this was published in PNAS, no less! I say shame on the people who reviewed it.

Look at the list again. My company's policy specifically allows 1-3 in moderation. So how could that possibly be unethical?

I'm glad I'm a biochemist not a psychologist. This would be almost funny if it wasn't so sad.