High-Status Criminals Face Greatest Public Wrath

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, December 22, 2008

Let's say the FBI hears a senior elected official on a tapped telephone line demanding kickbacks in exchange for favors and shaking down donors for campaign contributions in exchange for plum contracts.

Does it make a difference if the elected official is a governor, as is said to be the case with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich? What if the wrongdoer were a mayor? What if it were the president?

In a rational world, the rank of an official who abuses the public trust should make no difference in how people view the crime. Logically speaking, equivalent crimes deserve equivalent levels of opprobrium and punishment.

There is convincing psychological evidence, however, that this is not what happens in white-collar scandals such as the one involving Blagojevich. Controlled experiments show that the status of the lawbreaker makes a huge difference in how we evaluate what happened.

The higher the status of the person, the more likely we are to arrive at the most negative conclusions and reach for the most severe punishments. When it comes to white-collar crime, there appears to be an inversion of the discrimination that lower-status groups often face when it comes to violent crime -- the people who stand on society's tallest pedestals face our most vindictive judgments.

"People tell themselves different stories about what happened based on the status of the person, so that clashes with the idea that we punish people for crimes regardless of who they are," said Alison Fragale, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She recently completed a series of experiments that showed that people reach very different conclusions depending on whether a white-collar criminal has high or low status.

"We look at Blagojevich and make an assessment of what is going on," she added. "People ask themselves, 'What kind of person is this?' That is when your perceptions are activated."

Fragale's experiments, which she recently described in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, posed identical fictional scenarios to two groups of volunteers. Both involved a person who commits a crime, and both featured identical crimes. But one group of volunteers was told the criminal had a high status, while the others were told the criminal had a lower status.

One scenario featured two women in New York who had underpaid their income taxes and had been caught by the Internal Revenue Service. One was described as Elizabeth McAllister Wallace, a woman with "prominent social and political connections." The other was called Yolanda Ramirez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants. The volunteers concluded that the WASPish tax evader had broken the law deliberately but that the second-generation Mexican American had made an innocent mistake. They recommended a stricter punishment for the high-status woman.

In another experiment, Fragale described a new drug that had caused patient deaths. An investigation found that the clinical trial a pharmaceutical company had done on the drug was flawed, she told volunteers. To one group, Fragale said the trial had been designed by a junior scientist; to the other, she said it was a senior scientist. The single word change caused a significant difference in how the study volunteers perceived the situation. The senior scientist was seen as having deliberately designed a bad trial to win approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market a dangerous drug, whereas the junior scientist was seen as having made an innocent mistake.

The reason people draw harsh conclusions about high-status people is that very successful people are generally perceived to be selfish, Fragale said. When bad stuff happens, we fall back on this stereotype and assume that the high-status person deliberately cheated the system.

But doesn't the stereotype about self-interested, ambitious types make intuitive sense? Are people really wrong to conclude that a governor who breaks the law is a worse human being than a county commissioner who commits the same crime?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company