Leadership Jan 5, 2015

Social Class Affects Why We Lie

The pow­er­ful are more like­ly to lie for their own ben­e­fit, and the pow­er­less to help others.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Derek D. Rucker

Adam D. Galinsky

David Dubois

Pow­er cor­rupts and absolute pow­er cor­rupts absolutely.

So the say­ing goes. And pre­vi­ous research sup­ports this con­clu­sion to a large extent, show­ing that those in pow­er are more like­ly to act unethically.

But Derek Ruck­er, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, asked a sim­ple ques­tion that chal­lenged this fun­da­men­tal premise: Does it mat­ter if the per­son is lying to ben­e­fit him­self or some­one else?

It turns out the answer is yes, very much so.

Along with col­lab­o­ra­tors Adam Galin­sky, for­mer­ly a Kel­logg School pro­fes­sor who is now at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and David Dubois, a Kel­logg grad­u­ate who is now a fac­ul­ty mem­ber at INSEAD, Ruck­er con­duct­ed a series of exper­i­ments to test this premise. In sup­port of the pri­or lit­er­a­ture, they found that peo­ple high in social class were indeed more like­ly to lie or act oth­er­wise uneth­i­cal­ly when that lie ben­e­fit­ed them. But the twist is that those at the oth­er end of the social scale are not blame­less. They are more like­ly to behave uneth­i­cal­ly when the lie ben­e­fits some­one else.

It’s not as sim­ple as we thought,” Ruck­er says. Both high- and low-social-class indi­vid­u­als will behave unethically.”

Rucker’s study is the first that sep­a­rates out uneth­i­cal behav­ior from self­ish behav­ior. By doing that, he was able to see a dis­tinct pat­tern in the uneth­i­cal behav­ior of those high and low in social status.

The dif­fer­ence was not the degree to which peo­ple con­sid­er behav­ior to be uneth­i­cal — par­tic­i­pants at both ends of the sta­tus scale found the researchers’ hypo­thet­i­cal ques­tions equal­ly uneth­i­cal regard­less of the ben­e­fi­cia­ry. For exam­ple, not point­ing out that a pro­fes­sor erred in mark­ing sev­er­al answers cor­rect on your final exam ver­sus on a friend’s final exam is equal­ly prob­lem­at­ic, par­tic­i­pants said.

Every­one agreed that these are uneth­i­cal behav­iors,” Ruck­er says. You are telling a lie or you’re not, and par­tic­i­pants view this as devi­ous regard­less of whether you are doing it for your­self or for a friend.”

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Keep the Change

Say you just spent 10 min­utes in line at a busy Star­bucks to buy a cof­fee and muf­fin. You pay with a $10 bill and are a cou­ple blocks away before you real­ize the clerk gave you change for a $20 by mis­take. Do you go back to return the extra change? Does it make a dif­fer­ence if you bought the snack for your­self or were using mon­ey a friend gave you to buy the good­ies for her, mean­ing the extra change would be hers?

Ruck­er and his col­leagues asked this ques­tion and sev­en oth­er sim­i­lar­ly ambigu­ous ones of res­i­dents of a large Euro­pean city who were ran­dom­ly approached by researchers to answer a short sur­vey. The eight sce­nar­ios were iden­ti­cal for all par­tic­i­pants, except that the uneth­i­cal behav­ior was described in a way that either ben­e­fit­ed them­selves (they got to pock­et that extra $10) or some­one else (their friend got the cash). The par­tic­i­pants were also asked about their income to gauge social class.

The results showed that the high­er-income par­tic­i­pants were more like­ly to com­mit uneth­i­cal behav­iors when they would ben­e­fit, while the less afflu­ent said they would do so when they were ben­e­fit­ing some­one else.

It opens up that ques­tion for peo­ple as they start exam­in­ing uneth­i­cal behav­ior. Who’s ben­e­fit­ing here? Who are you doing it for?”

Anoth­er exper­i­ment boiled the behav­ior down to a ques­tion of whether par­tic­i­pants would tell a sin­gle lie to be entered into a prize drawing.

Par­tic­i­pants went into a booth and rolled an elec­tron­ic die five times. If the num­bers they rolled totaled at least 14, they would be entered into a lot­tery to win a $50 gift card for them­selves — or, in anoth­er con­di­tion, for some­one else of their choos­ing. The par­tic­i­pants were also asked to show where they con­sid­ered them­selves on a 10-step social scale.

The par­tic­i­pants were on an hon­or sys­tem to report the sum of their rolls and the exper­i­ment was rigged so that no one got a 14. Nonethe­less, those low­er in social class lied and said they got the req­ui­site sum approx­i­mate­ly 37 per­cent of the time when it would ben­e­fit some­one else, com­pared with only about 5 per­cent of the time when it would ben­e­fit them­selves. In con­trast, those high­er in social class showed near­ly the oppo­site pat­tern of results: they lied to ben­e­fit them­selves approx­i­mate­ly 47 per­cent of the time, com­pared with only about 5 per­cent of the time when they were ben­e­fit­ing others.

Pow­er and Social Class

Just what com­po­nents of social class con­tribute to this behav­ior? Anoth­er series of exper­i­ments allowed the researchers to deter­mine that a sense of pow­er — not sta­tus per se — is the decid­ing factor.

Why does this hap­pen?” Ruck­er asks. Those high is social class, by def­i­n­i­tion, have more wealth and resources. They feel more empow­ered, and this psy­cho­log­i­cal sense of empow­er­ment leads them down the path of cheat­ing to help them­selves. Those who are low in social class do not feel empow­ered. They feel more com­mu­nal and more depen­dent on oth­ers, which pro­duces a will­ing­ness to help oth­ers, even when it involves behav­ing unethically.”

In oth­er words, pow­er lets peo­ple focus on them­selves and their own goals, while a lack of pow­er turns people’s atten­tion out­ward to those who pro­vide a sup­port net­work. And this focus exerts its influ­ence on peo­ple faced with a deci­sion of whether or not to act unethically.

A Path Pre­vi­ous­ly Unexplored

For Ruck­er, the excite­ment in these find­ings is that they take what might be con­sid­ered a for­gone con­clu­sion — that the pow­er­ful behave more uneth­i­cal­ly — and sug­gest that the rela­tion­ship between pow­er and uneth­i­cal behav­ior is far more nuanced.

There’s this oth­er path that was unex­plored,” he says. It opens up that ques­tion for peo­ple as they start exam­in­ing uneth­i­cal behav­ior. Who’s ben­e­fit­ing here? Who are you doing it for?”

He hopes to see relat­ed ques­tions answered in future research. Under what cir­cum­stances might a high-sta­tus per­son lie to ben­e­fit some­one else? What about the rel­a­tive social sta­tus of the per­son asked to com­mit the uneth­i­cal act and the per­son it would ben­e­fit? For instance, what if your boss asks you to lie to cov­er up his affair?

Ethics are a big part of our soci­ety,” Ruck­er says. Try­ing to under­stand the fac­tors that may tip peo­ple one way or the oth­er is both impor­tant and exciting.”

Featured Faculty

Derek D. Rucker

Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing, Professor of Marketing, Co-chair of Faculty Research

About the Writer

Emily Stone is the research editor at Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Rucker, Derek D., David Dubois, and Adam D. Galinsky. “Social Class, Selfishness, Power and Unethical Behavior: When and Why Upper and Lower Class Individuals Behave Unethically.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In press.

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