Sunday, May 20, 2012

Taking candy from children

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!


  1. hehe great title and analogy. I like DJM's style also, as it's more lawyerly and intellectual. Lawprof is more angry young man style.

  2. I would love to see some psychological and sociological studies of law professors, although they as a group are too small and insignificant to garner such attention.

  3. DJM, at a future faculty staff meeting, you ought to place a box of donuts labeled "For Law Students." Then inform your colleagues that they can have some of the treats.

    I would love to see how many remain after these well-off "scholars"/failed attorneys have had a crack. After all, they don't seem to mind that they are "earning" $120K+ for 4-6 hours per week in the classroom, not teaching students how to practice, KNOWING that MANY of their pupils will never practice law. I attack "law professors" because, as a class, they have no integrity when it comes to the law school scam. They are raking in money, while their students are drowning in mountains of NON-DISCHARGEABLE debt.

  4. Great post:

    A few things:

    When I drive in the poorer neighborhoods in my town, I see all kinds of people driving junkers who run lights, ignore right of ways, and just seem to not give a fuck. Maybe it is just in my city.

    Something else: I think many people became "better off" by acting this way even when they were not better off earlier in their lives. They were rewarded by their acts.

    I know my generalizations are just that...overgeneralized. I have yet to meet a rich person who gave a fuck about anyone other than themselves.

  5. Extrapolating from those observations has a lot of problems. One I can think of off the top of my head is that observing expensive cars only tells you about people that drive expensive cars - not "high status people". My parents are fairly high status, and could easily afford an expensive car, but have never bought a new car in their lives, nor have they ever bought a used model of a luxury vehicle (they drive minivans and Corollas). So you're missing the not insignificant sector of high status people who aren't into conspicuous consumption, and are catching a lot of lower status people who use conspicuous consumption as an attempt to convey status. Also, what did they tell the people about the candy jar? Did they tell them it was barely enough candy for all the children? I would certainly behave differently if there were 5 brownies on a table and was told they were for 5 children later in the afternoon, compared to if there were a big jar of peppermints or something that I didn't think the kids would completely consume anyway. But i haven't read the study. Maybe they thought carefully about this.

  6. The "good guys lose" theme is one that gets done to death, and which doesn't factor in what we might call "catastrophic correction".

  7. Very excited about your guest blogging, DJM and son.

  8. @10:28,

    Bingo. In the studies that undergirded the book "the millionaire next door" it found that large numbers of the actual rich (as opposed to pretend rich) don't drive luxury cars, and most don't even drive new cars, preferring to buy used after some sucker eats all the depreciation.

    So that study doesn't necessarily tell us how the wealthy behave as much as it tells us how those who have a strong craving to be considered wealthy behave.

  9. And there is probably a not insignificant portion of law faculty that would fit into that second category.

  10. 10:28 and others, I strongly encourage you to question the assumptions in social science studies. As an aside, I've found that law students and lawyers tend to be particularly good at those critiques.

    The candy jar contained about 40 individually wrapped candies, something in the middle of the spectrum between 5 brownies and a large jar of peppermints. That middling number probably was in just the right range for eliciting differences in behavior. I.e., it's a gray area in which people are likely to differ in the amount of candy they take. Remember that the question here isn't whether it is right or wrong to take no candies, 1 candy, or 5 candies. The question is whether people who had been primed to think of their "better than others" status took more candies than those who were primed to think of themselves as less well off than others.

    In social science studies like this one, researchers compare the average behavior of one group with the average behavior of another. They can never say exactly how much candy a group will take, much less whether a particular individual will take candy. (My son, for example, notes that he doesn't even like candy.)

    All the study can do is suggest that one group is likely to take more candy than another group. If the result is supported with a variety of other studies, it becomes more credible. But even a series of social science studies rarely proves a fact conclusively; human behavior is very variable. That's why I like to use social science to encourage people to reflect on their own behavior and probe unconscious attitudes they may hold. Researchers sometimes see things in us that we wouldn't see in ourselves.

  11. @ 11:56,

    That's correct I think. I live south of one of the wealthiest communities in the country, and it is surprisingly common there to see a regular, non-luxury car parked in front of a mansion (and driven by residents).

    Conversely, in the more middle / upper-middle class locales to the south, it is also really common to see a Hummer parked in the driveway of a small two-story, and plenty of the cheapest-models from Lexus and Mercedes.

  12. I thought I'd add a separate comment about cars and social status, because that's such an intriguing question. And only LawProf can fish comments out of the spam filter, so I'm trying to avoid overly long comments. (Keep that filter problem in mind if one of your comments doesn't appear this week; you should just try to repost.)

    We all know lots of people who own cars, so it's easy to think of exceptions to the socioeconomic class/car relationship. But remember again that the study measures average behaviors of one group against another. Sure there are very high-status people who drive clunkers, just as there are privileged people who don't like candy. But overall, studies have shown a relationship between class and car appearance (with the latter including overall maintenance as well as make and age).

    For a study like this, it's also important to focus on the vast range of drivers and cars rather than just on the extremes. The first study, for example, recorded the conduct of 274 drivers between 3 and 6 p.m. How many of those cars were driven by one percenters? And how many by the poorest of the poor? Probably very few in either category. The behavior of millionaires matters less than how the cars driven by accountants compare, on average, with the cars driven by retail sales clerks.

    It may also be useful to know that the researchers created only five categories of cars. A brand new car probably would fall into the same category as a two-year-old, well maintained car of the same make. That helps account for savvy purchases among the rich.

    But I don't urge anyone to take this study as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Just consider whether it suggests tendencies that the relatively well-off may not recognize in themselves. I, for one, have become a little meeker at four-way stops.

  13. The candy and employment negotiation studies seem convincing. I'm less convinced about the driving studies - it may just be that poor people are obeying the traffic laws because they can't afford the fines and increased insurance costs associated with traffic citations. For the rich, these are just inconveniences.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Excellent post, DJM.

  16. ^ ^ ^ I had typos

    After law school, I landed a job with a company that sold motor vehicle extended warranties. The chairman of the company was an older lawyer, with a degree from Yale law school.

    One marketing channel the company used was telemarketing or "direct marketing" which I used to fancy was like taking "candy" or rather money from unsophisticated consumers, including trusting senior citizens.

    In some ways it can be said that Motor Vehicle Extended Warranties are just as, if not more deceptive than the law school scam.

    Perhaps scamming is just a part of life and business in general nowadays, and everywhere one goes.

    Maybe it has always been that way to a greater or lesser degree, and every generation learns the same lessons about scamming/life, over and over.

    One such lesson being:

    When the money is in your pocket, you are the boss. When you hand the money over, the other guy is now the boss.

    Except that if the money is borrowed tuition money it never does pass through the borrower's pockets, does it?

  17. 2:22:

    Another important additional difference between the law school scam and those crappy warranties is that there is/was plenty of information on how bad those warranties are. The information on those warranty scams is plentiful. A person who buys one probably has not done their research.

  18. I would still like to dicuss a comparison between the law school scam and

  19. @402:

    I saw that Sketchers settlement and I immediately thought of the law school scam. Apparently, law school scam victims told that a degree will give them an x% chance of making x dollars [based on one flawed group of people] are SOL because they should be "sophisticated" enough to know that the law school would use puffery to the point of lying, but a shoe company that claims x% of its customers lose weight has to pay a hefty settlement without massive blogging and numerous class action suits.

    So, fat middle-aged women who are dumb enough to think shoes help you lose weight = protected with vigilance from the FTC.

    Law students taking on non-dischargable debt who were dumb enough to believe that professional schools actually helped you get into a profession at the rates and salaries they claimed = nothing.

  20. Exactly. $40 million is a TON of money to Sketchers. That would be like fining law school a billion dollars.

  21. @2:46

    Oh No! No way! Motor Vehicle Extended Warranties are the slickest thing going, and I can write a book about it.

    Just like the Law School or educational scam, it is multi layered, as all good, self respecting scams should be.

    Trust me, the smartest and meanest and toughest old Judge alive, would be mere putty in the slick hands of a good used car salesman (that knows his business) upon setting foot in that high pressured closing booth.

    And if you, 2:22PM, in your pride, think that you can outsmart the Extended Warranty business, you will be in for a rude awakening, and will end up blue in the face writing 10 page, single spaced typed letters to a Warranty company that will laugh right in your face.

    But for what it is worth, if anyone ever has a problem with a denied claim or any problems in general with a Motor Vehicle Extended Warranty, the best thing to do is to write to your State Insurance Department.

    That will be far more effective than other channels such as the better business bureau, or your state Attorney general, department of Consumer affairs, or any other consumer grievance channel, or a personal lawyer (the last will cost you money)

  22. DJM's style is more intellectual, methodical, scientific and not as angry as Campos's style. This is a good thing for her as she is probably more mentally healthy. But it doesn't make for interesting posts.

    Homer Simpson it up a bit.

  23. Interesting quote from an article in yesterday's New York Times:

    "Now, though, the trend has spread among men of nearly all races and ages, more than a third of whom have a college degree. In fact, the shift is most pronounced among young, white, college-educated men like Charles Reed, a sixth-grade math teacher at Patrick Henry Middle School in Houston.

    Mr. Reed, 25, intended to go to law school after a two-year stint with Teach for America, but he fell in love with the job. Though he says the recession had little to do with his career choice, he believes the tough times that have limited the prospects for new law school graduates have also helped make his father, a lawyer, more accepting.

    Still, Mr. Reed said of his father, 'In his mind, I’m just biding time until I decide to jump into a better profession.'"

  24. Campos is Campos and DJM is DJM. They are both great in their own way.

  25. Not only is the article amusing, but you've won the appreciation of our Preoccupied With Tone crowd. Nice work, DJM.

  26. JD Painter---

    You ARE a typo.....

  27. Hopefully this will grow, and more professors will start posting here. I'd love to see this as a counterweight to thinks like Volokh and Prawfsblag.

  28. Yeah this is good stuff

  29. This post immediately made me think of a fond memory of law school. My evening legal ethics class was dismissed at around 6 PM, and in the main hallway of our school, a bunch of food was placed out. Immediately, a bunch of us hungry students moved to help ourselves, but one of the caterers asked if we were part of a fundraising event taking place for the PIFP group. We said we were not, and told that we could not partake from the food.
    A minute or two after that, our legal ethic professor came down the steps and into the room, saw the food, went over to it and started eating. The caterer asked if he was part of the PIFP group, and without any pause or hesitation he lied and said that he was and continued scarfing.
    And now he's on Villanova's front page being celebrated as the president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Awesome.

  30. @11:24

    That is a FABULOUS story!!!! Thanks for relating it.

  31. And from the looks of that photo, 11:24, Professor Wilkinson probably had not missed dinner that evening, either.

  32. @11:24, I agree--this is a wonderful story!


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