Social Class, Power, and Unethical Behavior Relationship

03 Apr 2018

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  • Juliet Bachtel


Psychological Research Studies Article Essay Summary

Psychological research has been used for hundreds of years to find correlation and causation between variables. How does one variable effect and independent variable? Research is used to decode how humans act and think with one another and other objects. The results can be used to affect public policy, enhance marketing, and give rise to new innovations. It is all around us. This report focuses on summarizing three scientific articles from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and Developmental Psychology. These articles ask important questions that effect people in their daily lives, such as: Are the rich more unethical than the poor and vice versa? Do people’s expressions affect how they allocate resources fairly or unfairly? Does taking a gap-year significantly affect the outcome of one’s future if they had not taken one? Each of these questions is relevant to any person in today’s society, especially students, and each has an interesting answer that can effect how people make personal decisions and or even affect public policy.

An economic disparity has always been present in human civilizations since ancient times from the Indian cast system to the present “one percent” privileged few in the United States, which causes a rift between those categorized as the rich and the poor. But are there other differences between those groups aside from economic variations, specifically are there ethical differences between the rich and the poor? INSEAD’s Dubois, Northwestern University’s Derek D. Rucker, and Columbia University’s Adam D. Galinsky answers the question, “Are the rich more unethical than the poor and vice versa?,” with two novel findings in their article “Social Class, Power, and Selfishness: When and Why Upper and Lower Class Individuals Behave Unethically”. Their hypotheses are that those who are higher in social class behave more selfishly but not unethically, while those lower in social class perform more unethical behaviors that are prone to helping others and are subsequently less selfish. They define selfishness as a heightened concern with one’s own personal profit or pleasure while unethical behavior refers to any illegal or moral action deemed unacceptable by the large community.


Dubois, Rucker, and Galinsky created an experiment to test their hypothesis. In the experiment, they tested the hypothesis that higher social class increased unethical behavior that benefits the self. 151 (half female, with the median age at 38) participants rolled an electronic die multiple times and were told if the total number is at least 14, they would win a lottery prize of $50. They were individually responsible for reporting their own score, but since the die was programmed to only add up to 12, any reports over 12 (including the 14 that is needed to get the prize) is considered cheating and is thus measured as unethical behavior. The potential lottery gains could be given to the self or to another person, which was used to measure self-other beneficial manipulation. They then reported where they were on a ten step ladder that represented the different levels of social class and reported their age and gender.


Dubois, Rucker, and Galinsky’s research established that a parsimonious relationship exists between social class, power, and unethical behaviors. There was a higher tendency to cheat for oneself in higher-class individuals. While being in high social class does not inherently make those who fall in that category behave unethically, being in a high social class can be a prediction for selfish behavior (those who are in a higher social class tend to have more selfish or self benefiting behaviors, actions, and choices). Meanwhile, those in lower social classes tend to behave more unethically but more so when it benefits others. These differences tend to stem from differences in social power and influence. However finding out if “the rich more unethical than the poor and vice versa?” may not be the right question to ask. Society may be more interested in when the rich vs. the poor is unethical?

People have been allocating resources since the dawn of mankind. Every day individuals make decisions on how to allocate items throughout their life and to different people, whether that be time, money, food etc. When making such decisions, people commonly weigh how they feel about the consequences each choice make and use these feelings to guide them into allocating their resources. In Cardiff University’s Job van der Schalk and Anthony S. R. Manstead, University of Groningen’s Toon Kuppens, and University of Konstanz’s Martin Bruder’s article “The Social Power of Regret: The Effect of Social Appraisal and Anticipated Emotions on Fair and Unfair Allocations in Resource Dilemmas” the question, do other people’s emotional expressions affect an individual’s anticipated emotions and subsequent resource allocation when making decisions about resource allocation? Their hypotheses is that someone who expresses regret about having allocated resources unfairly would elicit more generous offers from an individual (who is allocating resources) than someone who expressed pride about having allocated resources unfairly.


They tested that whether another person (exemplar) who felt proud or regretful about allocating resources fairly or unfairly would (Study 1A) influence a participants own allocation behavior and (Study 1B) does so by influencing the anticipated emotions the participant is experiencing if the participant was to act the same way as the other person (exemplar). The experiment had a 2 x 3 between-subjects design. With two behaviors, fair and unfair, and three emotions, pride, regret, control. 218 participants (61.9% female, with a mean age of ~45 years old) in Study 1A and 207 participants (50.7% female, with a mean age of about ~47 years old) in Study 1B, all of whom were recruited online through a loyalty program which would give them points for compensation. The measure of fair behavior is the amount of monetary units or tokens that participants are willing to share. All participants were allocators that had 100 pounds to allocate. They would make an offer in the simulation game and immediately after would be asked how many tokens they would be willing to spend in the game for that same offer. The answers reflected acceptance or rejection made by the randomly selected participants. Their emotions were also reflected and exemplar influence was created by having participants seeing a transcript of a previous participants’ (exemplar’s) thoughts on that offer, which would also have how the participants would split 50 tokens, 45(self)-5(other), 25-25, or something in between those two measurements. Exemplars manipulated emotion by writing if they felt “good”, “proud”, and “pleased” or feeling “bad”, “sorry”, and “regret” about the decision. Participants first provided demographic information, and were assigned an allocation role.


Data analysis found that the effect of the exemplar regret on an offer in the fair behavior condition was fully mediated by an increase in the anticipated feelings of regret and was reduced with the anticipated feeling of pride. Participants who received an unfair offer in the first game were less liked to make an unfair offer in the second game. Indirect effects from anticipated emotions were significant from the exemplar and the hypothesis was supported by the data.

It is common for recent high school graduates to take a gap year from school before continuing their higher education in community college, university, or job training programs. Many benefits have been deducted from previous research, the main benefit being more emotionally and mentally prepared to handle the challenges going into high university deals with including enacting career goals and developing a strong sense of identity. Australian Catholic Univeristy’s Philip D. Parker and Jasper J. Duineveld, Cornell University’s Felix Thoemmes, and University of Helsinki’s Katariina Salmela-Aro’s article “I Wish I Had (Not) Taken a Gap Year? The Psychological and Attainment Outcomes of Different Post-School Pathways” asks the question, is there evidence to suggest that those who embark on a gap-year would have significantly different outcomes had they instead gone directly to university?” They look at the differences between those who took and a gap-year and those who went directly to university, and hypothesize that there is are differences in the growth in career and educational goals, satisfaction with life, and university degree enrollment.


They used two longitudinal studies in Finland and Australia as well as following participants’ choices after leaving high school and cover an extensive time period covering enrollment, drop-out, degree completion, and further studies. The sample size for Finland was 636 (68% female, 30% both parents in a white collar profession with 50% + with at least one parent in a white collar profession) of which 384 students planned obtaining a university degree and the rest going straight into the labor force or attaining a polytechnic university. Out of the 384 going into university, 279 wanted to go directly out of high school while 105 planned to take a gap-year. Of the gap-year participants, 55 went into the military, 26 planned to work, 14 wanted to go oversees, and 20 had no firm plans. Analysis was interested in university enrollment, cognitive developments and behaviors relating to participants central educational or career goals, and whether the post-school pathway influenced these outcomes. Propensity score matching was used to control confounding variables. Australia had a similar sample size. Each participant was followed throughout their educational career and gave input on how they felt and what they were doing and planning on doing for the future.


Results concluded that on average a gap-year provides little benefit or disadvantage in relation to goal engagement or confidence. It was found that students on a gap-year in Australia, however, tended to drop out of university, less likely to go onto higher education, and 20% never accepted enrollment when offered a spot. This clashes with other studies that say that gap-years are positive influences in attainment. While gap-years do not affect someone’s intrinsic goals or confidence, it can be seen to negatively impact attainment of a university degree.

Psychological research and experimentation reveals how certain dependant variables can affect independent variables. This in turn shows us correlation and possible causation between two factors that can be manipulated. This can help enhance society and help humans understand how we function when given experience to different variables and factors. In these articles, it was shown that the rich have more selfish behaviors than the poor but the poor behave more unethically to better other people. People’s resource allocation is influenced by someone else’s input and facial expression, and that taking a gap-year from high school to university does not effect confidence or goals, but negatively affects degree attainment.

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