Q&A: How Income Predicts Honesty

ruckerIt’s pretty much a given (at least for anyone who knows the storyline of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Great Gatsby” or “Scrooge”) that rich people cheat, steal and lie more than regular working stiffs. But while Derek D. Rucker, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, knew there was plenty of evidence to support that, he wanted to find out when people with less money were most likely to cheat. The results are fascinating: Using eight different scenarios, he and his team discovered that people with more income are far more likely to cheat or lie to benefit themselves, while those with less are more likely to do so when it helps others. 

In one part of the experiment, participants played a game involving dice and were told that if the sum of their rolls equaled 14, they would win a prize. The dice were rigged so that achieving 14 was impossible. Still, when those with less money were told they could give the money to someone else, 37% lied about it. Only 5% did so when they thought the money would be for them. But among richer people, the math was reversed: 47% percent lied about it when they thought the money was for them, and just 5% when it was for someone else.



“It isn’t as simple as we thought,” he tells Marketing Daily. The study is the first to try to tease out the differences between  unethical behavior and what’s selfish. He tells us more.

Q. So the news is that money makes people selfish?

A. It’s really about psychology. We’ve found that people with more money feel more in charge of their own lives, and tend to be very self-focused, while people with less tend to see themselves as more dependent on others. When you’re rich, and feel like you're a master of the universe, you don’t need people as much.

Q. So it isn’t that less money makes us more honest, just that we’re dishonest differently?

A. Yes. That "other" focus makes them more likely to commit an unethical act for others. When we feel powerless, we are conditioned to feel helpless, and that means we are going to behave like other people matter. We feel more communal and more dependent on others, which produces a willingness to help others, even when it involves behaving unethically. And it could be a way to build social capital, that these other people will be in a position to help you later.

Q. What does it mean for marketers?

A. Let's say I’m working on messaging that will reduce tax fraud. If the message is directed to more affluent people, it’s going to be more effective if it focuses on the penalties they’d incur from cheating. But for those in a lower socioeconomic status, it might work better to focus on how fraud hurts other people, including their friends.

Q. Does it horrify you to realize how dishonest people are? The percentages of people choosing the unethical answers in your scenarios — not returning the extra change to Starbucks, telling a professor someone had died so they could get out of an assignment — are kind of discouraging.

A. No. It’s important to point out that these scenarios were all fairly inconsequential. I’d like to believe that if we were asking people different hypotheticals — if lives were at stake, for example — they would answer very differently. In conversations, I believe most people are genuine. The default seems to be honesty.

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