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Collapse and upper-class greed?

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Critical perspectives on historical collapse

Several of this week's papers (in PNAS) revisit some of the examples of societal "collapse" that Jared Diamond's book discussed. I'm looking forward to reading them.

But I want to comment briefly on another interesting PNAS paper:
Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior." I'm inclined to blame the recent and ongoing global economic collapse -- is that too strong a word? -- on the unethical behavior of some fraction of the upper class. But I don't find this paper entirely convincing, though it's certainly interesting. Here are some of their data.
The top graph shows the percent of cars cutting off other cars at intersections, while the bottom shows the percent that failed to stop for pedestrians, both as a function of subjectively-assessed "vehicle status." It looks like people in high-status cars are more likely to be jerks. (Difference between a Porsche and a porcupine? The pricks are on the outside.) The observers weren't told what hypothesis they were testing, but it seems like it would be easy to guess. Could anti-rich bias on the part of the observers (probably students who weren't rich -- yet -- and who may feel "oppressed" by the rich parents who are paying for their education) have affected their judgment of whether a car cut off another or not? Are "drug-dealer cars" high or low status?

Also, most of the difference in the top graph is between class 4 and 5 cars, while most of the difference in the bottom graph is between class 1 and 2. The paper doesn't comment on this discrepancy. Are all but the poorest (but still rich enough to have a car) jerks against pedestrians, while only the richest are jerks against other cars?

The paper includes results from additional studies, but all were done with undergrads at UC Berkeley. Although some of them came from low-income families, they themselves have a ticket to the upper class. Some might choose low-paying vocations, but at least they get the choice. So I don't have much confidence in those studies.


The paper is behind a pay wall, but I'm curious if the authors consider whether 1)bad actors succeed through their greed and rise to a higher status, or 2) higher status individuals develop a cavalier attitude toward laws and mores and eventually become bad actors.

I've no idea whether one can access BMV data, but it would seem possible to estimate the same sort of behavioral responses from this source. This latter source can also be skewed if one considers that radar detectors offer some level of avoidance to scofflaws who can afford them. But the sheer volume of such data and the ability to parse it on a state-by-state, or other demographic would make it seem more attractive than relying on the impressions of college students alone.


Good question. They write: "Our prior work shows that increased resources and reduced dependency on others shape self-focused social-cognitive tendencies (3, 5–7), which
may give rise to social values that emphasize greed as positive. Furthermore, economics education, with its focus on self-interest maximization, may lead people to view greed as positive and beneficial (26, 27)." But I think your alternative hypothesis is plausible also.

I like your idea of using a larger data set on traffic violations. But it's not just radar detectors. Rich people hire better lawyers, so they are less likely to be convicted for the same crime. Also, publicly available data on speeding tickets probably wouldn't say how rich the people were. Could Google do the analysis without revealing any data on individuals?

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