Money Can't Buy Trustworthiness

It may have to do less with the class you're born into and more with how your income compares to those around you.


What defines low socioeconomic status? Objectively, it means fewer economic resources and educational opportunities, less access to elite schools and clubs, more subordinate positions in the workplace, and increased levels of stress. For the upper-class, it’s just the inverse: more resources, more leisure, less stress.

From the realities facing each group, you might assume that members of the lower-class would be more focused on meeting their own survival needs and, thereby, prioritize their needs over those of others. As a result, you might also expect them to be less trustworthy as compared to members of the upper-class who, given their greater resources, have the luxury to trust. But if you do, you’re missing a central point about how trust really works. Trust isn’t a luxury. It’s a tool we need to get by when we can’t make it on our own; it’s a means of survival for those who must depend on others. Viewed this way, predictions about trust and class get turned on their heads.

Most of us don’t usually think about it, but the simple act of crossing the street necessitates some level of trust. Stepping into an intersection makes you vulnerable to being hit. Remaining safe usually involves trusting that approaching cars will slow down or stop and allow you to proceed. You might say you never actually think about trusting a driver, but most people have had the experience of trying to decide whether to cross in front of an oncoming car. Does it have a lot of collision damage? Is the driver blaring his music and revving his engine?

If the answer to either of these questions (or ones similar) is yes, you’d probably choose not to cross the street when you might have done so if the car were a cute VW Bug being driven by a nun. The choice to cross isn’t just influenced by the physics of velocity; trust plays a role.

To relate that to social class, consider this experiment. You’re standing on a corner in downtown San Francisco. It’s a four-way stop, meaning cars are supposed to pause before entering the intersection. As you’re sipping your latte, you look to your left before stepping off the curb. The car approaching is a shiny BMW. Do you cross? How about if it’s a Ford Fusion? The model of trust I’ve been describing suggests you might want to pause if it’s the BMW. There’s really only one way to tell, though. You’ve got to put yourself out there. And that’s just what Paul Piff and colleagues from the University of California at Berkeley did.

As cars approached this busy intersection in San Francisco, a researcher would enter the crosswalk. Unbeknownst to drivers, he also noted the make of their car and their perceived age and gender. The main datum for each car was whether the driver paused to let the researcher cross at the stop sign (as is required by the California Vehicle Code) or sped up to cut him off and thereby proceed more quickly toward the driver’s goals. Paul and colleagues divided drivers into five SES categories based on their cars—think Hyundais on one end and Ferraris on the other. The results were quite remarkable.

At the lowest end of the class gradient, every single driver stopped to let the pedestrian entering the crosswalk continue on his way. Midway up the class ladder, about 30 percent of drivers broke the law and cut off the pedestrian so that they could keep going. At the upper end of SES, almost 50 percent of drivers broke the law to put their own needs first. At the most basic level, these findings offer a provocative warning. When you’re vulnerable, upper-class individuals are more likely to disregard the trust you place in them if doing so furthers their own ends.

That might seem hyperbolic. After all, we’re simply talking impersonal interactions at traffic intersections. Fair enough. If the data ended there, I’d agree there might not be much to it. But it doesn’t end there. Suspecting their view of the upper-class’ trustworthiness—or lack thereof—was correct, Piff’s team began a multi-pronged investigation that examined class-based effects both on a willingness to trust others and on trustworthy behavior itself. In all the experiments, they first divided individuals into distinct class levels based on typical measures of SES and then exposed them to different situations. What follows is a sampling.

One experiment was presented as an investigation of negotiation tactics. The participants—here members of the upper- or lower-class—were told that they would play the role of an employer negotiating a salary with a job candidate. These “employers” were given a lot of information about the job (e.g., salary ranges, details about responsibilities), but one piece was central to the researchers concerns: The job was scheduled to be eliminated in six months. As the participants reviewed the file of the job candidate they were to interview, it became clear that he was looking for a long-term job and wouldn’t consider a position unless it was likely to provide at least two years of employment. The “employers” then produced a written script of how they would describe the position to the job-seeker.

What instantly became clear is that as social class increased, so did the likelihood of concealing the fact that the job would soon end. In fact, the experimenters asked these faux employers if they would tell the job applicant the truth about when the position would end if he asked directly. Again, significantly more upper-class individuals indicated that they would lie—that they would intentionally betray the trust the job-seeker placed in them as an honest supervisor. Strike two for trustworthiness.

Next, the team had participants of different classes play a gambling game on computers. It was a dice-rolling game where higher numbers corresponded to more money won. The task was quite simple: Roll the dice five times and report the results to the experimenters. What happened is just what you’d expect based on the above findings. More upper-class individuals inflated their rolls, thereby ensuring they’d receive larger sums of money from the experimenters than they deserved—a fact that was easy to determine as the computers surreptitiously recorded the totals of the actual roles. Strike three.

These findings offer what seems to be a straightforward message. Members of the upper-class—the better off among us—are self-serving. They don’t need to rely on others and would rather members of the lower-classes—just like the pedestrians in the San Francisco intersection—get out of their way. But is this a fair assessment? The data are certainly clear: Higher social class often equals lower trustworthiness. That seems to suggest that untrustworthiness is a birthright of the upper class.

To me, though, this view doesn’t make much sense. I’d argue that trustworthiness is dynamic—it comes from calculations that are constantly being updated. Like the rest of human morality, it’s not fixed. Past behavior only predicts future behavior when the situation hasn’t much changed. In the case of social class, this view suggests a very different way to understand why trust varies. Yes, members of the upper-class have been raised in privileged environs, but that’s not why they’re on average less trustworthy. It’s because they’re still living in those environs—because they still, at this moment, have resources to burn. What drives trustworthiness is a sense that you need others, a sense that you’re not invulnerable or able to achieve your desired ends all on your own.

Taken to its logical end, this view suggests that the lower-class is more trustworthy because it has to be, but if I were to pluck someone out of a position of deprivation and suddenly place him or her on a higher rung of the status ladder, a decrease in trustworthiness will, as emerging research shows, quickly follow. If you stop to think about it, it doesn’t seem such an odd idea. The story of the little guy who makes it big is a fairly common one. Boy or girl from humble roots gains some power—gets a big promotion at work, lands an acting or music contract, wins the lottery, or otherwise begins to move in more affluent circles—and his or her personality changes. He’s not the same anymore; he’s somehow more self-absorbed and less reliable.

Of course, it works the other way, too, if Hollywood is to be believed. Rich, snobby girl suddenly loses it all and learns to become a caring and honorable member of the lower- or middle-class. If I’m right about this, it means that it’s not so much the class you’re raised in that determines your trustworthiness, it’s where you are right now relative to those around you. Put another way, it means that, at least when it comes to trust, being in the 1 percent is a state of mind as opposed to a result of breeding.

This post has been adapted from David DeSteno's The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More.