Who is more likely to take candy from children? A law school professor or one of the school's janitors?
If you chose the law school professor, you're correct--according to new research by a team of Berkeley psychologists. Bear with me while I get a little professorial and describe this research; I think you'll appreciate the pay off.
Paul Piff and his colleagues just published a paper describing several studies that suggest higher-class people are more likely than lower-class ones to commit certain types of illegal and unethical behavior. Here are some of the highlights.
In their first study, the Piff group sent trained observers to a busy intersection with four-way stop signs. The observers coded the "status" of cars, based on the car's make, age, and appearance. Other research demonstrates that a car's appearance correlates heavily with the driver's social rank and wealth. The observers then tallied which cars waited their turn at the intersection and which ones cut off other drivers.
You know the result from my introduction: the high-status cars were much more likely to barrel through the intersection. Thirty percent of the highest-status cars cut off other drivers, compared to just eight percent of the lowest-status cars. "Waiting your turn" doesn't play well with high-status drivers.
Piff's crew next staked out a well marked crosswalk. As one researcher watched from a hidden spot, another stepped into the walk. The drivers all gazed at the pedestrian or briefly slowed, suggesting that they had seen the pedestrian. State law and good manners require a driver to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. But only drivers of the lowest status cars uniformly followed that rule; every one of those drivers stopped for the pedestrian. Other drivers were much ruder and less law abiding, with the bad behavior escalating by social class. Fully 46% of the highest-status cars cut off the pedestrian.
And now we get to the candy. Piff and his colleagues set up a third experiment in which they "primed" subjects to think of themselves as either better or worse off than other people. After the subjects completed the priming task and some other exercises, the experimenters pointed out a jar of candy and told the subjects that the candy was for a group of children in a nearby room. The jar itself was labeled "child research lab." But the experimenters also told the subjects that they could take some of the candy if they wanted to do so. How much candy did the subjects take from the children's jar? Those who had been primed to think of themselves as comparatively well off took twice as much candy as those who had been primed for lower-status feelings.
Taking goodies from a child's candy jar and leaving less for the children...where else have I seen behavior like that? Could it be law schools that raise tuition faster than inflation, even during the great recession? More candy for us, less for our students.
In a fourth study, Piff asked another group of subjects to imagine themselves as employers faced with the following situation: They must fill a job quickly and at the lowest possible salary. Only one candidate remains in the pool, although the candidate does not know that fact. The candidate also does not know that you (the employer) plan to eliminate the position in just six months. The position must be filled now, but will not last long. You offer the job to the candidate and get ready to negotiate salary. At that point the candidate expresses a strong desire to remain in the same job for two years; she suggests that she would be willing to accept a lower salary in return for a verbal commitment of job security.
Based on these hypothetical facts, Piff asked the subjects: How likely would you be to tell the applicant the truth about the job's limited duration? Higher-class subjects (as measured by a standard test of social class) were significantly more likely than lower-class ones to say that they would lie or obscure the truth. The significant difference remained even after controlling for sex, age, ethnicity, religiosity, and political orientation. Social class, not politics or religion, predicted a willingness to mislead the job candidate.
It's easy to criticize any one psychology study as unrealistic. The subjects in the final study, for example, didn't engage in a real negotiation; many of them may have never hired a person in the real world. But when researchers combine a variety of study methods and subjects, as the psychologists did here, the results grow in persuasiveness.
The job-negotiation study, furthermore, is eerily like the behavior we've seen from law schools. At some point in the last few years, almost every law school has obscured important employment data from applicants. Even today, after more than a year of complaints, lawsuits, nagging, and heckling, many schools are still posting data selectively. How did legal educators come to think, like the subjects in the previous study, that it's ok to engage in hardball, hide-the-truth negotiations with our own prospective students?
I like studies like the Piff one because they push all of us to think about our unconscious attitudes. We tend to associate people from low socioeconomic backgrounds with higher crime rates. Poor people probably do commit some crimes at higher rates than well-off citizens; poverty breeds a special type of desperation. But given the right circumstances, well-off people will also act unethically or illegally. Indeed, as Piff's research shows, they are more likely than others to commit some types of unethical acts. The problem isn't social class itself; it's the attitudes and assumptions that status can confer.
If law faculty and deans reflected seriously on Piff's findings, they might see how narrowly self interested we've been in touting misleading job data and raising tuition faster than inflation. We haven't thought as seriously as we should have about the significant damage these actions have done to our students. As LawProf has suggested before, law faculty are the type of people who would emphatically deny any tendency to take candy from children. But what happens when we're left alone with the candy jar and our self interest?
Here again is the link to the Piff study. Unfortunately, you'll have to pay $10 for online access if you don't have a library subscription. If you want to walk to a library to see the study in hard copy, it's Paul K. Piff, et al., Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior, 109 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 4086 (2012). Watch out for high-status cars when you cross the street.
PS LawProf has departed for a well deserved one-week vacation. Meanwhile, DJM and son have agreed to temporarily fill his very large shoes. Bon voyage, LawProf!