Rich People Aren’t Entirely Awful And Selfish: Study

Business majors who admitted they'd jump at the chance to take a $2 million insider trading tip still were willing to stop and help a victim in need.
401(K) 2013 via Flickr

Investment bankers raking in the dough on Wall Street may get a bad rap for being selfish, but a desire to make boatloads of money won’t automatically turn you into Scrooge McDuck, according to new research. A study published in the April issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that many people primarily driven by a desire for wealth are still willing to help someone in need.

Previous research has shown the people are more likely to help others if they aren’t in a hurry, and might be less likely to help others if they love money. Yet in a recent experiment with a group of 50 wealth-driven college students in an intro economics course at Loyola University, mostly business majors, 78 percent displayed a willingness to stop and lend assistance to someone in trouble regardless of whether they were in a hurry.

First, the students filled out a questionnaire measuring their religiosity and desire for wealth. Later, they were given one of two passages to read–either one about career paths for economics students or a version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were asked to go down the hall to another room where they would give a short speech related to the passage they had read. Some were told they were running late and the researcher in the other room would be waiting on them, while others were told they didn’t need to rush.

On their way to the other room, the participants encountered someone in distress who would approach the subject and explain that his cell phone had just died and one of his family members had been in an accident. The “victim” would rank each student’s helpfulness on a scale from 0 to 5–from not noticing or offering them any help to indirectly helping by telling the waiting research assistant about the situation to providing them with a cell phone or money for a pay phone.

After the students proceeded to the room and gave the speech, they answered a questionnaire about how likely they would be to help someone in need, whether they would participate in insider trading if they could get away with it and receive $2 million, and whether accumulating material wealth was one of their major goals in life.

The majority of the participants offered some form of aid to the victim, either directly or indirectly. Only 22 percent (11 people) did not help at all, and 66 percent stayed with the victim and/or gave them a cell phone to use.

Helpful, but these people weren’t angels: the authors write “the preliminary data suggests the majority of the participants were somewhat ethically challenged.” A little more than half (56 percent) admitted they would take the $2 million for insider trading, and 72 percent said accumulating wealth was a top life priority.

Whether or not they were in a hurry didn’t seem to significantly affect the students’ altruism: 84 percent of the low-hurry group stopped to help, whereas 72 percent stopped in the high-hurry group. Which passage the students had been given to read didn’t affect the outcome either.

Whether the subject was intrinsically motivated by religion did predict helping behavior: those with intrinsic religious motivation (those who viewed religion as an end in itself rather than a means to an end) were 13 times more likely to help compared to a subject without intrinsic motivation (like those who viewed religion as a means to an end, motivated by social status or peer approval).

“The source of intrinsic motivation arises from following religious tradition, which calls for altruism and self-sacrifice,” writes author Michael Babula, a senior lecturer in quantitative techniques at the University of Greenwich. “The significant finding offers an upbeat note that wealth-driven individuals in this sample may possess the Samaritan-like mindset.”

Great, so it’s possible to be both a rich investment banker and a good person. But is anyone else worried about how many of these business majors would consider insider trading?

via BPS Research Digest