Elites Excel At Hypocrisy

A few days ago Tyler blogged a study dissing elites:

Upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, take valued goods from others, lie in a negotiation, [and] cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize. (more)

While Tyler had doubts, I’d guess this is mostly true. I’m reminded of Freakonomics on “What the Bagel Man Saw”:

The same people who routinely steal more than percent of his [honor system paid] bagels almost never stoop to stealing his money box. … Telecom companies have robbed him blind, and … law firms aren’t worth the trouble. … Employees further up the corporate ladder cheat more than those down below. He reached this conclusion in part after delivering for years to one company spread out over three floors — an executive floor on top and two lower floors with sales, service and administrative employees. … ”I had idly assumed that in places where security clearance was required for an individual to have a job, the employees would be more honest than elsewhere. That hasn’t turned out to be true.” (more)

I’m also reminded of Charles Murray’s wish that on marriage, hard work, religion, and (caught) crime, elites would more “preach what they practice.” At least by the usual reading, elites are more moral on these key choices.

My interpretation: elites excel at hypocrisy. Elites can better distinguish ideals which are mainly given lip service, from ideals that really matter personally. Elites can better see which laws and social norms are actually enforced with strong penalties, and those that can be violated with impunity. This ability comes in part from implicit cultural learning, and also from just raw IQ. Homo hypocritus is alive and well – having good enough brains and social connections to manage hypocrisy well is still a core human capacity, as crucial for success in our world as it was for foragers.

This theory suggests that weak culture, the parts without strong local teeth, matter more for lower classes. Upper classes give lip service to whatever they are supposed to endorse, and then mostly ignore it to do what helps them personally. It is the lower classes that are more likely to naively do what culture suggests. They are more likely to “only marry for love” or “follow your bliss” or to think “its all relative anyway.”

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  • Wonks Anonymous

    Do we still consider them our worthy overlords? Are we repelled by this hypocrisy, or admire it and despise the gullible chumps? You sometimes give a story along the latter lines, but I expect the above post to produce the opposite reaction.

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      I think that Robin’s major premise, that elites exhibit hypocrisy is wrong. It is not elites who exhibit hypocrisy, it is people who are not elite trying to pose as elites that exhibit hypocrisy. If you are really an elite, you don’t need hypocrisy to be successful. If you are an elite poser, you do.

      If you can’t tell who is a poser and who is a real elite, then you are a poser too. Tolerating hypocrisy is poser behavior.

      In the Emperor’s new clothes, the Emperor was a poser and not a true elite. The sycophants who sucked up to him were posers too. Not because some of his elitism would rub off, but to get money and improve their poser status.

      • Wonks Anonymous

        Robin seems the term “elite” to refer to high-status people. I don’t know what definition you are using.

        “If you can’t tell who is a poser and who is a real elite, then you are a poser too”
        If I explicitly deny being an elite, then I cannot be a poser, but I could still be unable to distinguish them.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        Yes, if you do not think of yourself as an elite, then you cannot be a poser.

      • Wonks Anonymous

        I could be aware that I am not really an elite, but try to fool others into thinking I am anyway.

      • Poelmo

        Robin means “rich people” when he says “elite”, as do most people. That’s not necessarily a sign of respect or approval, just a word that accurately describes the privileged status of rich people.

  • http://dr-souz.blogspot.com Will

    Intuitively, this seems very close to the truth. In fact, I agree with everything you wrote.

    But, there is a 2nd element I wonder if you’re neglecting. In High School, I remember encountering kids who cheated on HW/Tests. I steered clear of this because I realized, “If I don’t actually learn these skills, eventually I might need them and cheating will be counter-productive.” So to this day, I don’t lie on my CV or fake competence. In the long-run – it pays to be honest. I think we see this in a lot of elite people: short-cuts and cheating are poor strategies.

    So I wonder if your view of “elite” hypocrisy would vary based on what time frame people look at. For a 40 year old Barack Obama, it probably wouldn’t be very helpful to engage in dishonest campaigning tactics, but for an end-of-career Obama, perhaps it becomes appealing.

    So, I wonder if the counter-weight to elite’s higher rate of cheating is an understanding of delayed consequences. So whether someone cheats might be a product of two sets of knowledge: 1) Knowing-How-To-Get-Away-With-Things (KHWTGAWT) and 2) Investment-In-Personal-Skills-And-Interpersonal-Trust (IIPSAIT)

    In this model, if someone is KHWTGAWT positive and IIPSAIT negative, they cheat. But if they’re KHWTGAWT positive AND IIPSAIT positive, they don’t cheat.

    The remaining options would be: if they’re double negative – they get caught cheating (criminals). And if they’re IIPSAIT positive but KHWTGAWT negative, they probably get swindled by more Machiavellian actors.

    (Just thoughts… I have NO proof whatsoever. haha)

    • Sid

      Elite parents usually do not endorse their kids cheating on an exam: neither vocally nor silently. In general it pays to be honest on exams, so in this case, most of the time, elites profess what they practice.

      But you would also notice that if an exam is particularly important, then they would be more willing to selectively ignore so called “unethical” behaviors.

    • Daniel

      Some things hurt you in the long run. Other things you can get away with. The point here seems to be that elites are better at telling the difference, and thus can cheat at stuff with lower risk. Since homework is something where cheating will hurt you in the long run, they won’t cheat at it.

  • Jim Rutt

    This could be the unintended consequences of a relatively new filter in our society: meritocracy. Prior to the 1960s it was customary for selection processes in academia and business to consider the adherence to “cultural norms” and class cohesion (“is he OUR kind of person?”). The move towards meritocracy has had wonderful effects in bringing forth the best and the brightest from whatever their backgrounds may be (I am certainly a beneficiary), HOWEVER, it also seems like meritocracy has let a lot more sociopaths and extreme narcissists into the ranks of the elites. It’s been very noticeable in my 35 year business career. Indeed on pessimistic days I feel like our elite institutions may end up as armies of semi-autistics lead by sociopaths.

    • http://reflexionesfinales.blogspot.com/ russell1200

      I thought I had a good idea, but I like Jim’s better.

    • asdf

      Bingo.

      Only some elite jobs actually require elite raw talent. A lot require elite character more then elite talent.

    • AngryKrugman

      And completely eliminates the noblesse oblige. When you tell people they’ve made it to whether they are based on “merit”–even if those “objective” tests are based on a subjective set of values–they start to believe it. They feel they’ve earned everything they have and because of it, justify a lot of there other actions.

    • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

      I believe just the opposite. Prior to 1970, in academia, merit was likely to result in a good career. Post 1970, the most important factor in academic success has been how expensive an undergraduate college your parents could afford to send you to. I have data showing that, before 1970, successful physicists could come from any undergraduate college; post-1970, only physicists who went to top undegraduate schools had successful careers.

      • asdf

        The counter is that colleges got better at selecting people on merit.

        And for the top schools money isn’t an issue. Nobody turns down Harvard over tuition (or if they do, they are way to dumb to go to Harvard).

      • Sid

        Can you link me to this data?

  • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

    How was social class determined in these studies? Maybe it merely shows that unethical people try to claim high social class. You can think of driving an expensive care as a matter of claiming high social class.

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  • Cmot in Chicago

    There’s another explanation for the honorbox data, one that I witnessed first hand.

    I worked in an office mostly filled with low staus ‘pink-collar’ clericals. We had an honorbox that was honored for years, until a work change meant that workers from another location of ours were making regular trips to our office. Honorbox theft skyrocketed. There was no social or status difference between the resident and visiting workers. And they had an honorbox that was never stolen from. Of course, people who wouldn’t steal from their “own” honorbox were stealing from ours!

    How does the vendor in the Freakonomics example know that something similar wasn’t going on his case, that is, workers form lower floors stealing form “the other guy’s” honorbox?

    But I think life is both more obvious and more complex than the Feaknomics guys do.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    Is it possible that the low class people that would steal are unemployed or in jail. That the rate of theft would be the same or lower in the upper classes but that they are just wiser about what and when to steal (this is in keeping with what you say robin but with a slight twist).

    It is hard for me to believe that the guys that bullied me in school are now all lawyers. More and more the bad kids dropped out of school.

    Aggressiveness out or control cause self destructive behavior, aggressiveness with self control is an asset.

  • komponisto

    I have never gotten over the shock of realizing just how much deception (both of oneself and of others) is required in order to thrive in human society.

  • J Storrs Hall

    A shallow analysis, I fear, reifying moral norms as if they were laws of physics.

    Consider society as if it were an 80s-era timesharing system. Most users are bound by the permissions and read/write restraints of the filesystem. But the sysadmins must needs have a superuser mode where they can not only read and change files at will, but set up the structure of permissions and change it to meet changing needs.

    The elites’ “hypocrisy” is their way of memetically enforcing their notion of proper behavior on the rest of society. No human society can function without it, just as no one has figured how to make a computer system work without sysadmins.

    Was the “divine right of kings” more honest about this aspect than our current pretense-driven upper class? Well, no, they had this whole religious metaphysics you had to believe…

    Ethics is about restricting people’s actions in a way that benefits the group. The rules for the king obviously have to be different from those for the commoners to achieve this goal.

  • Drewfus

    Ethics is about restricting people’s actions in a way that benefits the group.

    Either that or it’s about restricting peoples actions in a way that benefits those doing the restricting.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    One more data point. I managed restaurants for a long tie and the servers preferred affluent parties because although they tended to complained more they gave bigger tips.

    • xxd

      This is in direct contrast to driving limo: the richer they are the cheaper they are.

      • DTT

        I think this is the difference between discretionary (drivers, valets) and standard (restaurant 15-20%) tips.

        While there were plenty of exceptions, when I was a valet, I noticed that the less-pricey cars usually gave better tips, and the more-affluent customers forgot to tip at all more often. My guess was that the farther you are from a tipping job (either through connections or personal history), the less aware of the valet you are as a person as opposed to a service.

    • Pete

      That’s also contrary to what studies have found. The phenomenon you describe must have been specific to your restaurant, because wealthy people overall give smaller tips.

  • Modernjan

    @Will

    But, there is a 2nd element I wonder if you’re neglecting. In High School, I remember encountering kids who cheated on HW/Tests. I steered clear of this because I realized, “If I don’t actually learn these skills, eventually I might need them and cheating will be counter-productive.” So to this day, I don’t lie on my CV or fake competence. In the long-run – it pays to be honest. I think we see this in a lot of elite people: short-cuts and cheating are poor strategies.

    Think again: just look at politicians if you want prove of how far incompetence can get you. You really don’t have to be a genius to finish law school or business school, it’s not rocket science. But guess who makes more money, the Harvard lawyer/executive/politician or the state university aeronautical engineer… we all know the answer.

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