LOS ANGELES – The rich really are different from the rest of us, scientists have found – they are more likely to commit unethical acts because they are more motivated by greed.

People driving expensive cars were more likely than other motorists to cut off drivers and pedestrians at a four-way-stop intersection in the San Francisco Bay Area, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, observed. Those findings led to a series of experiments that revealed that people of higher socioeconomic status were also more likely to cheat to win a prize, take candy from children and say they would pocket extra change handed to them in error rather than give it back.

Because rich people have more financial resources, they’re less dependent on social bonds for survival, the researchers reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “If you occupy a more insular world, you’re less likely to be sensitive to the needs of others,” said study lead author Paul Piff, who is studying for a doctorate in psychology.

Trained observers hid near a downtown Berkeley intersection and noted the makes, model years and conditions of bypassing cars. It turned out that people behind the wheels of the priciest cars were four times as likely as drivers of the least expensive cars to enter the intersection when they didn’t have the right of way. The discrepancy was even greater when it came to a pedestrian trying to exercise a right of way.

Back in the laboratory, the team used a standard questionnaire to get college students to assess their own socioeconomic status and asked how likely subjects were to behave unethically in eight different scenarios.

Students were asked to imagine that they bought coffee and a muffin with a $10 bill but were handed change for a $20. Would they keep the money?

In another hypothetical scenario, students realized their professor made a mistake in grading an exam and gave them an A instead of the B they deserved. Would they ask for a grade change?

The patterns from the road held true in the lab – those most willing to engage in unethical behavior were the ones with the highest social status.

A possible explanation was that wealthy people are simply more willing to acknowledge their selfish sides. But that wasn’t the issue. When test subjects of any status were asked to imagine themselves at a high social rank, they helped themselves to more candies from a jar they were told was meant for children in another lab.