A new study gives new meaning to the word "classy" — it turns out wealthier, better educated, more successful people have a greater tendency to lie, cheat and cut off pedestrians while driving, compared with their poorer neighbours.

Seven experiments using different measures of class in different situations consistently showed that the upper classes were more likely to engage in unethical behaviour than those from lower classes, reported a summary of the results to be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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One of the experiments found that California drivers in expensive cars were 50 per cent more likely than those with 'average' cars to cut off a pedestrian trying to cross the street. (Thomas Kienzle/Associated Press)

Stéphane Côté, a psychologist at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management who co-authored the study, said he was surprised by the consistency of the results across all the experiments and thinks it's something that people who are better off should be aware of.

"I think it's important for those people who have the resources to understand that this is their basic tendencies and potentially … reflect on their behaviour and whether it in fact takes into the needs of others," he said in an interview Monday.

He added that it might also help provide context and a better understanding of issues raised by the Occupy movement or the behaviour of white-collar criminals such as Bernie Madoff.

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Côté and collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley, were interested in finding out whether the way people think and act on a day-to-day basis is affected by their financial resources, education and job.

They found that under all the circumstances they tested, the higher "class" someone was, the greater their tendency to engage in "socially inappropriate" or, in the case of drivers, illegal behaviour. However, they noted, these were overall tendencies and could not be used to predict the behaviour of individuals.

The class differences were most pronounced in an experiment involving 152 California drivers who were classified according to the type of car they drove: Those with the most expensive cars were 50 per cent more likely than those with "average" cars to cut off a pedestrian trying to cross the street, even though drivers in the state are required by law to yield to pedestrians.

However, "moderate" class effects were seen in other scenarios, where participants:

  • Rated their likelihood of engaging in different types of unethical behaviour.
  • Decided how much candy to take from a jar when the rest was destined to be given to children.
  • Chose whether to tell the truth during negotiation of a salary.
  • Were tested to see whether they would cheat to increase chances of winning a prize.

Such "moderate" effects are "still pretty impactful if you see that on a day-to-day basis," Côté said.

The researchers speculated on a number of reasons for the differences in behaviour. Higher class people might be more easily forgiven for social transgression and they might have more resources to deal with consequences of bad behaviour such as fines, for example.

However, the research did find that people's behaviour, regardless of their actual class, could be changed by two things: their perception of class and their attitude toward greed.

In the experiment involving the candy, the participants were asked to compare themselves with people with the least or the most money, altering their perception of their own social class. In that case, those who perceived themselves to be upper class took more candy than those who perceived themselves to be lower class. Côté said this suggests that the perception itself played a big role and also counters the theory that people become higher class by engaging in unethical behaviour.

The researchers also found that participants were more likely to express a willingness to engage in unethical behaviour at work, regardless of their own class, if they were asked beforehand to think about the beneficial effects of greed than if they were asked to think about three things they did in a typical day.

Côté said a more positive view of greed among upper classes may be one factor behind their tendency toward unethical behaviour. He added that there is some evidence that this effect can be removed by interventions that elicit empathy and promote behaviour that helps others.

"If we understand the reason why we see these differences," he said, "then my sense as a psychologist is [we can]

try to find other ways to countervail these tendencies."