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Among the One Percent, Look Twice Before Crossing

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 28, 2012

Shiny Cars, Scary Drivers

For cynics, this might come as unsurprising science.  But a new study shows that as social status rises, so does the propensity to commit unethical acts, like lying in a negotiation, cheating, stealing, and breaking the law while behind the wheel.   The study fits a long line of research by Dacher Keltner at the University of California in Berkeley.

I’ve written in the past about his “Cookie Monster” experiment for The New York Times.  For the new study, published Monday on PNAS:

Observers stood near the intersection, coded the
status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver
cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting
their turn, a behavior that defies the California Vehicle Code. In
the present study, 12.4% of drivers cut in front of other vehicles.

But drivers of top status cars cut off other cars almost 30% of time, versus less than 10% for the lowest-status cars.

It was even worse for pedestrians:  Top status drivers cut off pedestrians 45% of the time, versus close to zero for the lowest-status drivers.

The study attributes the effect to multiple factors:

Upper-class individuals’ relative independence from others and increased privacy in their professions (3) may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased
perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts (8). The availability of resources to deal with the downstream costs of unethical behavior may increase the likelihood of such acts among the upper class. In addition, independent self-construals among the upper class (22) may shape feelings of entitlement
and inattention to the consequences of one’s actions on others (23). A reduced concern for others’ evaluations (24) and increased goal-focus (25) could further instigate unethical tendencies among upper-class individuals. Together, these factors may give rise to a set of culturally shared norms among upperclass
individuals that facilitates unethical behavior.

The bottom line:   If there’s a Mercedes or Escalade in the neighborhood, stand back from the curb and pray, while also watching your wallet.

Let’s call it “the Lizzie Grubman effect,” for the wealthy publicist who allegedly yelled “Fuck you, white trash” before backing her Mercedes into a crowd of pedestrians outside a Long Island nightclub.  (And true to the study’s theory about “downstream costs,” she got off with 37 days in jail.)

“High social class predicts increased unethical behavior,” by Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner

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