In Australia, where we like to cut our tall poppies down, wealthy people come with an unenviable reputation.

Unless you happen to be reading the business pages, money and power will attract sneering. Otherwise, the lionising coverage of those with outrageous success seems ample reward for their riches.

A multitude of psychological studies conclude rich people are more unethical and selfish than those who are less fortunate. However, one question remains mostly unanswered; what came first; the bad character or the money?

Here, we take a quick look at what research tells us about the collision of money and ethics:

1. Fancy car, poor driving

People driving expensive cars are four times more likely to ignore right of way laws on the road than those who drive cheap cars.

Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley
and his then-graduate student, Paul Piff, tracked the model of every car that cut off others.

“It told us that there’s something about wealth and privilege that makes you feel like you’re above the law, which allows you to treat others like they don’t exist,” Keltner told the Washington Post.

In another experiment, half of the luxury car drivers ignored a pedestrian on a crossing – many even after making eye contact. However, all the cheapest cars stopped.

2. They cheat more on their taxes

Taxpayers whose true income was between $US500,000 and $1 million a year understated their adjusted gross incomes by 21 per cent in 2001, compared to an eight percent underreporting rate for those earning $50,000 to $100,000 and even lower rates for those earning less than that.

According to research, wealthier people were more likely to cheat because it was easier for them to hide sources of income from self-employment, rents, capital gains and partnerships.

3. Less empathetic

Observations that rich people tend to be less generous than the poor may be influenced by the amount of time we spend looking at each other.

By analysing what people look at as they walk down a street (wearing Google Glasses), psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley,
Pia Dietze and Eric Knowles, discovered that social class did not affect how many times people looked at another person – but it did determine how much time they spend looking.

Participants self-nominating as higher in social class spent less time looking at other people.

Dacher Keltner says people in lower socioeconomic classes tend to be more vigilant because they “live lives defined by threat”.

4. Less generous

Middle-class Americans give a far bigger share of their discretionary income to charities than the rich. If the rich live in wealthy neighbourhoods, they give an even smaller share of their income than wealthy people in economically-diverse neighbourhoods.

“Wealth seems to buffer people from attending to the needs of others,” Paul Piff told the New York Times.

5. Cashed-up and sad = bad

People most likely to approve of unethical behaviour are those with a low level of happiness, but a high level of income, according to a survey of 27,672 professionals.

Conversely, the most disapproving of unethical behaviour were those with high income and life satisfaction, according to professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School, the late Keith Murnighan, and Long Wang of the City University of Hong Kong.

“People who are exuberant and upbeat about life, and happen to have high income, are likely to be more trustworthy,” Murnighan told his university’s Kellogg Insight publication.

“An unhappy rich person might feel bad because of their own unethical behaviour, but it might be that very behaviour that got them rich in the first place.

“Having a comfortable amount of money might allow enough psychological ‘room’ to ethically consider the needs and perspectives of other people, which may then lead to feelings of well-being.”

6. Stereotypes are self-fulfilling

Negative stereotypes of rich people are all-pervasive. According to Adam Waytz, an Associate Professor of Management and Organisations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, studies show that the more profitable a company, the more people linked it to social harm.

“People come to confirm the behaviours that are expected of them (we live up to and down to others’ stereotypes of us), and if rich people and business folks are assumed to behave with the same scruples as Bernie Madoff, these views will likely elicit unethical behaviour from them,” warns Waytz in a blog in the Scientific American.

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