Access the publisher's website Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108, 3 (2015) 436-449
Are the rich more unethical than the poor? To answer this question, the current research introduces a key conceptual distinction between selfish and unethical behavior. Based on this distinction, the current paper offers two novel findings that illuminate the relationship between social class and unethical behavior. First, the effects of social class on unethical behavior are not invariant; rather, the effects of social class are moderated by whether unethical behavior benefits the self or others. Replicating past work, social class positively predicted unethical behavior; however, this relationship was only observed when that behavior was self-beneficial. When unethical behavior was performed to benefit others, social class negatively predicted unethical behavior; lower class individuals were more likely to engage in unethical behavior that benefits others than upper class individuals. Overall, social class predicts people’s tendency to behave selfishly, rather than predicting unethical behavior per se. Second, individuals’ sense of power drove the effects of social class on unethical behavior. Evidence for this relationship was provided in three forms. First, income, but not education level, predicted unethical behavior. Second, feelings of power mediated the effect of social class on unethical behavior, but feelings of status did not. Third, two distinct manipulations of power produced the same moderation by self-versus-other beneficiary as was found with social class. The current theoretical framework and data both synthesize and help to explain a range of findings in the social class and power literatures.