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That jerk in the other car

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Esther Cepeda
March 5, 2012
— My husband has started teaching our oldest son the rules of the road in anticipation of his getting behind the wheel. A few weeks ago, I heard my husband tell the impressionable young boy that people in expensive cars have the tendency to drive more aggressively than those in economical rides. I hemmed at such a sweeping generalization, but now there’s some scientific proof from psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto.

At a four-way-stop intersection in the San Francisco Bay Area the researchers found that, relative to the lower class, drivers of higher-end automobiles were four times more likely to cut off other vehicles before waiting their turn at a busy intersection with stop signs in all directions, and significantly likelier to drive through a crosswalk without yielding to a waiting pedestrian.


Of course, that’s not to say that drivers of 1999 Ford Tauruses never have their rude or hurried moments, but the evidence against the wealthy is pretty damning. In fact, in half a year of hearing about the so-called evil “1 percent,” this is the most specific and tangible evidence of their potential nastiness I’ve seen.


The researchers, in a report published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that because rich people are so much less dependent on social bonds for survival than are the poor, their self-interest leads them to have fewer reservations about breaking rules. For instance, the researchers found that subjects self-reporting high socioeconomic status were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, take valued goods from others, lie in a negotiation, cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work.


That might explain why the FBI recently announced that it recruited Michael Douglas, who famously portrayed Gordon “Greed is good” Gekko in the iconic 1987 film “Wall Street,” to warn about the perils of the highfalutin crime of insider trading.


“Our economy is increasingly dependent on the success and integrity of the financial markets,” Douglas says, suggesting how to get more information for avoiding securities fraud. “The movie was fiction, but the problem is real.”


I know all this sounds unreal. But it’s not. The scientists had participants rank themselves, relative to others in society, on a 10-rung ladder in terms of wealth, education and the prestige of their jobs and literally found out who takes candy from babies.


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 to be donated to children in a nearby location but that they were welcome to take from.

Did you catch the nuance of that last example? It doesn’t take multimillion-dollar windfalls to make people into greedy, self-interested jerks. Merely imagining ourselves rich and powerful triggers the bad behavior. The reverse was also true: The researchers also found that watching a movie about childhood poverty had the effect of encouraging people of all classes to want to help others in need.


So, rich or poor, it’s all a state of mind. At least we can be thankful that those of us in the 99 percent outnumber the 1 percent on the road. Lucky us.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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