Does Having Money Make You Trustworthy?

The Atlantic takes us to an interesting place this morning, asking us to consider whether we put more instinctive faith in the rich than in the poor and, if so, whether we’re mistaken. Here’s a thought experiment to go with your morning joe:

You’re standing on a corner in downtown San Francisco. It’s a four-way stop, meaning cars are supposed to pause before entering the intersection. As you’re sipping your latte, you look to your left before stepping off the curb. The car approaching is a shiny BMW. Do you cross? How about if it’s a Ford Fusion? The model of trust I’ve been describing suggests you might want to pause if it’s the BMW.

So, do you place more trust in the driver of a Bimmer or that of some midrange American car? What if there’s a third car, a real junkbucket, in the mix? Who’s more likely to hit you? Tell us, science!

At the lowest end of the class gradient, every single driver stopped to let the pedestrian entering the crosswalk continue on his way. Midway up the class ladder, about 30 percent of drivers broke the law and cut off the pedestrian so that they could keep going. At the upper end of SES, almost 50 percent of drivers broke the law to put their own needs first. At the most basic level, these findings offer a provocative warning. When you’re vulnerable, upper-class individuals are more likely to disregard the trust you place in them if doing so furthers their own ends. (emphasis added)

So “built Ford tough” translates to “less likely to kill you on purpose.” Good to know! My father, of blessed memory, always told me that if I were going to get hit by a car I should make sure it was a Mercedes. Turns out the Mercedes drivers are on the same page.

To discover whether upper-class drivers are, on average, more comfortable with the idea of a confrontation since they are better equipped to handle the financial repercussions, or whether rich people are just more likely to be jerks, the researchers devised two other experiments. And? And?

These findings offer what seems to be a straightforward message. Members of the upper-class—the better off among us—are self-serving. They don’t need to rely on others and would rather members of the lower-classes—just like the pedestrians in the San Francisco intersection—get out of their way. But is this a fair assessment? The data are certainly clear: Higher social class often equals lower trustworthiness.

Like I said, guys. Eat the rich. Otherwise they always win.

The article goes on to point out, though, that being rich is not a static condition. A moral poor-ish person could, once they have accumulated wealth, become immoral, and vice versa. That makes sense: we all respond to the cues given to us by our environment. Bad behavior by rich people is often more tolerated by society. (Ahem, affluenza.) Maybe the way the rest of us envy, excuse, and generally coddle our rich people is what makes them think they can behave in a self-serving way. Maybe they are simply meeting expectations.

Still, Universe, if I were rich, I promise I would be a good rich person, like Warren Buffett or Cher Horowitz (“Once I get my license, I fully intend to brake for animals“). And I’m sure you’d be too, right?

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