There is a reason people love HBO’s latest profoundly dysfunctional family drama Succession (that family makes the Lohans look like they’ve really got it together.) We love to watch rich people behaving badly. And it’s not like these are the first serials to depict the lives of the rich and famous. They follow in the diamond and blood encrusted footsteps of Dynasty, Dallas, Peyton Place, 90210, Gossip Girl, Billions, etc., Heck, Tom Wolfe made a career (and entire vernacular) out of exposing the underbelly of yuppie narcissism.
But with these shows, a part of us thinks, “People can’t really be this bad, can they?” This is for entertainment. Are rich people really this immoral?’ Well, according to recent research and if you just watch the news (hello Paul Manafort trial), these dramas and our gage on the wealthy may not be that far off.
Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley and Paul Piff who have spent decades studying wealth, power and privilege through a series of experiments. One looked at cars at a busy four-way intersection and found that it was people in the more expensive cars like Mercedes that were four times more likely to ignore the right-of-way laws than those driving cheaper and older cars.
When Keltner had a researcher pretend to be a pedestrian crossing, guess which cars actually stopped? Yup, the people in the cheaper cars while only half of the expensive cars did. “It told us that 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,” Keltner told the Washington Post.
Rich people behaving badly
In an absolutely shocking finding, Keltner and Piff also found that rich people are literally more likely to STEAL CANDY FROM CHILDREN. In an experiment with 129 subjects, they had them compare their finances to people had more or less money. Then they have them a candy jar that was going to be given to children in a neighboring lab but they could take some if they liked. The subjects that were categorically richer than the people they were compared to took more candy for themselves then those were poorer. “To 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,” said Keltner.
These studies do make the rich look very culpable but do keep in mind that they are small sets of the wealthy and some of this people could have had immoral and jerk-like tendencies before they acquired wealth. Robert Gore, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Alliant International University, in San Francisco, said when Piff and Keltners study came out that studies linking class and ethics are hard to make conclusive. “Not everyone who is coded as relatively high social class drives a luxury car,” Gore said to CNN. “Luxury car drivers are a subset of the well-to-do, and we all know people who drive cars they can’t really afford.” He added, “This study really shows that people who identify as a higher social class are more likely to admit unethical behavior. It’s not clear whether they actually behave worse or just claim to.”
However, Piff noted that they conducted several experiments and they all had similar results and factors including age, sex, ethnicity, and religious and political affiliations, which can impact ethics and morals, were accounted for.