The Contaminating Effect of Social Capital: Upper-Class Networks Increase Unethical Behavior

Having friends in high places is often considered necessary to achieve success. Indeed, having connections with upper-class individuals offers instrumental benefits, from better jobs to higher salaries. Despite the tangible benefits that upper-class network contacts offer, we find that these networks have a dark side: the increased potential for unethical behavior. We propose that because upper-class individuals are less constrained in their behavior, individuals with many upper-class contacts will perceive their network contacts as having looser social norms. As a result, individuals with upper-class network ties will view morality as more relative and will be more likely to engage in unethical behavior. To test our core hypothesis that having upper-class contacts increases unethical behavior, we conducted six multi-method studies (archival, field, quasi-experimental, and experimental) involving a range of samples (CEOs, nationally representative adults, student roommates) from multiple cultures. Importantly, we demonstrate that the effects of upper-class networks on a focal person’s unethical behavior occur over and above their own social class (thereby ruling out a class homophily effect) and the level of unethicality of their network contacts (thereby ruling out direct imitation). Overall, this research takes a property of networks (its class composition), links it to perceptions of that network (the perceived norm looseness of one’s network contacts) and connects it to a psychological mindset (moral relativism) that ultimately affects unethical behavior. These findings demonstrate the benefits of social capital can carry a moral cost.
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