Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wealth and Antisocial Behavior: Reverse Causality?

There is quite a bit of buzz about this just-prepublished article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Here is the abstract:
Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.
The tone of the first wave of commentary, as far as I can tell, is that we knew it all along—rich people are nasty.  I would like to put in a word, however, for the other direction of causality, that dishonesty and putting one’s own interests ahead of others are conducive to wealth.  I certainly don’t mean this deterministically; there are lots of stone-broke cheats and chiselers out there.  Nevertheless, at many key moments of life people face a choice, whether to shade a bit and advance their own career, or remain honest and end up back in the pack.  Do you take credit for someone else’s work in order to get a promotion?  Do you leave out some information that would reduce the likelihood of a sale that would make you a tidy profit?  And if you find yourself in a zero-sum situation where your gain is someone else’s loss (or more gain for you means less gain for them), do you push your advantage as hard as you can?

The reason I bring this up is because there is a constant background murmur in our society that says that greater wealth has to be a reward for more talent, more effort or more contribution to society.  When Steve Jobs died, he was a poster child for this view.  Yeah, he was something of a jerk, but he gave us all those great gadgets, and that’s why he was so rich.  Could it be, however, that among all those whose intelligence, creativity and obsessive toil drives progress, what separates the Steve Jobs from the Unknown Nerd is the bundle of personal traits that add up to claiming for oneself alone the contribution of everyone else?  There are a lot of people who could never imagine raking in billions while those who do the physical work in China are driven to, or past, the brink of suicide.  They won’t get to be CEO.  Nor would the people taking in the super-bonuses at Citi, G-S, BoA and the rest be where they are if they put as much energy into making sure mortgage borrowers were treated legally and fairly as they do into squeezing a little more profit into the kitty.

Maybe the reason a lot of people are vulnerable in this economy is that they’re too damned decent.  Between, say, Tyler Cowen and Leo Durocher, who do you think has a better handle on how the world really works?


Shane Taylor said...

"It is in terms of power," said Frank Knight, "that competitive economics and the competitive view of life for which it must be largely accountable are to be justified. Whether we are to regard them as justified at all depends on whether we are willing to accept an ethics of power as the basis of our world view." Reduced to the absurd: success creates merit, just as might creates right.

Dan Crawford (Rdan) said...

Well Peter,

You beat me to it. The studies are gated so a response is general...may I re-post?

someofparts said...

Is Tyler Cowen your example of someone who understands reality? God help us all if you are.

Our leaders are epic crooks and liars. So a bunch of crooks are worried that their victims lack character? So if they rob and cheat us enough we will become better people?

Are all of you out of your damn minds?

Jack said...

Me thinks that Peter was being a bit sarcastic in his comparison of Cowen and Durocher. Possibly many out there aren't aware that it was Durocher who coined the phrase, "Nice guys finish last." And Peter, correct me if I've misunderstood, I think is favoring Durocher's awareness of mankind over Cowen's.

I'm especially impressed with this part of Cowen's article. "Nonetheless, higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores — of discipline and hard work — because they bolster one’s chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution. And so they should." Presumption, Tyler Cowen is thy name. Unless by traditional mores Tyler is referring to the mores of late 18th Century Paris wherein removal of the elite was thought to be the best way to bolster one's chances of political success.

At least Prof. Cowen got one small part right. "Still, the left-wing vision does not sufficiently appreciate the power — both as reality and useful mythology — of the meritocratic, virtuous production of wealth through business." Note the reference to useful mythology. It applies precisely to the connection of virtue and merit in the production of wealth through business.

Peter Dorman said...

Dan: Feel free to repost.

GeorgeNYC said...

Of course Mr. Cowen disagreed with the study:


Absolutely hilarious and predictable. I particularly like the reference to "Nordic" countries as though "average" wealth is what the study is talking about.

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