Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

pick-pocket

(Photo: Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock)

Poor People Judge Harm-Doers More Harshly

• January 22, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock)

New research suggests this reflects their greater vulnerability to people who commit injurious actions.

How harshly do you judge someone with a habit of hitting people? How about a lout who engages in sexual harassment?

Newly published research suggests the answer depends in part on how well you’re doing financially.

A study published in the journal Psychological Science finds people with low incomes judge wrongdoers more severely. French researchers Marko Pitesa and Stefan Thau report this dynamic only applies to ethical issues involving injury or loss, and suggest it reflects the poor’s “lower ability to cope with the effects of others’ harmful behavior.”

Their results suggest our ethical beliefs are shaped, at least in part, by practical considerations. Moral transgressions don’t seem quite so bad if we’re in a financial position to easily deal with their consequences.

Those who were primed to think of themselves as relatively poor expressed harsher judgments of behavior that involved harming others. But in reacting to those scenarios involving societal taboos, they were no more judgmental than their counterparts.

Pitesa and Thau describe two experiments that provide evidence for their thesis. The first featured a huge set of data taken from the World Values Survey, which tracked the ethical beliefs of people in 56 countries over 13 years.

Participants were given eight behaviors in which others are harmed (including “lying” and “cheating on taxes”) and asked to judge them on a scale of one (never justifiable) to 10 (always justifiable). They also reported their household income, which allowed the researchers to rank them on a 10-point scale from rich to poor.

In addition, the researchers looked at inflation rates in each country, as determined by the World Bank. They figured that, while inflation makes everyone feel poorer, low-income people feel its effects more acutely.

The numbers (after taking into account such factors as education, religion, and race) confirmed their theory. Lower incomes were associated with harsher moral judgments. So was high inflation—but only for people with below-average incomes.

To determine why people feeling pinched cut wrongdoers less slack, Pitesa and Thau conducted an online experiment featuring 199 people, who were recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Participants were asked to list their monthly income on a one-to-11 scale, which was manipulated to convey the idea that their financial resources were either sufficient or severely lacking. Half marked their income on a scale that ranged from $0 per month to over $500 per month. For the others, the scale went from $0 to over $500,000.

They were then asked whether they thought of their income as low or high, and responded to a series of statements designed to measure how vulnerable they felt.

Finally, they read five scenarios describing people engaging in immoral actions. In half of the vignettes, harm was done to another person. The others featured behavior that hurt no one but broke moral taboos, such as two people “passionately kissing and caressing each other” while in line at the DMV. Participants rated the extent to which they found each behavior inappropriate or unacceptable.

Those who were primed to think of themselves as relatively poor expressed harsher judgments of behavior that involved harming others. But in reacting to those scenarios involving societal taboos, they were no more judgmental than their counterparts.

The perception of a “lack of material resources led to a significantly greater sense of vulnerability,” the researchers write. “(This) sense of vulnerability, in turn, led to harsher judgments of harmful transgressions.”

The results may be unnerving to those who assume their ethical judgments are based on rigid religious or philosophical principles. This research suggests they are, in fact, flexible enough to be influenced by our perceived place on the economic ladder.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.