Unethical Behavior

by Jesse Bogacz, Kenyon ’18

The article I have chosen to discuss is “Social Class, Power, and Selfishness: When and Why Upper and Lower Class Individuals Behave Unethically” by David Dubois, Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky.  The article begins by introducing the reader to publically known instances where upper class figures behaved in unethical ways such as cheating on a spouse or stealing money.  It also draws attention to famous bank robberies put on by those deemed to be in the lower class economically and socially.  However, the authors immediately draw a major distinction between these two groups of actions.

They argue that upper class people are much more likely to behave unethically if they seek to benefit themselves by their actions.  The authors would also argue that lower class folk have a higher chance of behaving unethically when their actions would benefit someone other than themselves.  To provide some context into this study, the researchers have defined unethical behavior (for this study) as “illegal or morally unacceptable to the larger community.”[1]  This definition operates under the understanding that social norms partially dictate what will be defined as unethical behavior, but a good way to understand it is general dishonesty within the community.  The authors define selfishness, regarding acting unethically to benefit oneself, as “heightened concern with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.”[2]  However, the authors go beyond this simplistic dichotomy of to benefit oneself or someone else.  They bring power and social class into the equation.  They assert that those who feel more powerful tend to be more selfish when behaving unethically.  Social class is defined as “an individual’s rank vis-a-vis others in the society, in terms of wealth, occupational prestige, and education.”[3]  Of these three factors, the researchers argue that income is the greatest predictor of unethical behavior.  It is the power received from having a relatively higher income that produces these actions.  The author defines power as “asymmetric control over resources in social relationships.”[4]  The authors use this four key terms to explore whether or not upper class or lower class people will have a tendency to act more unethically and whether or not it will be for self-benefit or for the benefit of someone else.

In their first experiment, the researchers surveyed 150 participants in large metropolitan cities in Europe.  The design was to give the participants a chance to lie for self-benefit or for the benefit of someone else.  The participants played a controlled game where they reported the number that landed face up multiple times on a die.  The game was planned to always end up with a sum of 12.  However, the researchers told the participants any score of 14 or higher and they received a gift card.  In half of the experiments, the participants were told they themselves would win.  In the other half, they were asked at the beginning to input the name and email address of someone who they would want to receive the gift card if they won.  Their hypothesis was that higher social class leads to increased unethical behavior, cheating in a game in this instance, when the behavior benefits them.  The results concluded that higher-class individuals were much more likely to cheat for themselves than when they were told to put someone else’s name into the system.  On the other hand, lower class people were much more likely to cheat the game if they knew they were helping someone else out.  The experiment produced great results.  To quote the study, “social class positively predicted self-beneficial cheating but negatively predicted other-beneficial cheating.”[5]

The researchers conducted another experiment where they asked individuals in a major European city whether or not they would act in a certain way (unethically) in a number of scenarios.  Once again, the experiment showed very similar results to experiment one.  It also indicated the researchers belief that income was more of a source of power than education was.  This makes sense because being educated and earning a low wage does not give one the same sense of power as one who is earning a much higher wage, regardless of their formal education.  The researchers went on to conduct four more experiments.  Experiments 4,5,6 found that “manipulating social class affected people’s sense of power.”[6]

The authors also address the limitations of their study.  They only used people in Europe and North America.  This leaves out a large portion of the world and in general all Eastern cultures.  The results might have varied more if a more inclusive group of people was used for the studies.  Another limitation is the fact that lower class people might have lied about helping others more than themselves.  This is not to say that lower class people are not generous.  But rather they did not want to be seen as greedy and criminal by behaving unethically for themselves.  The final major critique they mention is that behaving unethically and social rank are small portions of society in general.  The argument could be made that it is society that forces these results rather than these smaller themes.

The authors concluded by stating that instead of asking, “whether the rich are more unethical than the poor” researchers should be asking “when are the rich versus the poor unethical?” [7]  This new question is based off the findings that upper class people have no greater tendency to behave unethically but a greater tendency to act selfishly when acting unethically.  At the same time, lower class people have a tendency to help others when acting unethically.


Dubois, D., Rucker, D., & Galisky, A. (2015). Social class, power, and selfishness: When and why upper and lower class individuals behave unethically. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 436-449.


[1] Dubois, D., Rucker, D., Galinsky, A., Page 437.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dubois, D., Rucker, D., Galinsky, A., Page 438.

[4] Dubois, D., Rucker, D., Galinsky, A., Page 438.

[5] Dubois, D., Rucker, D., Galinsky, A., Page 440.

[6] Dubois, D., Rucker, D., Galinsky, A., Page 446.

[7] Dubois, D., Rucker, D., Galinsky, A., Page 447.

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