Turn Down The Stereotype And Pay Attention

When  you’re out in the car next time, try not to be a dick. I say that with good intentions, because if you, like I, drive a so-called “luxury” car you’re apparently more likely to be aggressive on the road, less likely to give way to pedestrians and generally be more likely to break the law.

‘Data shows that as the value of the car increased, the driver’s tendency to break the law increased as well – the more expensive the car approaching the crossing, the less likely it was to stop.’

I can’t be talking about you, can I? After all, we’re not only all better-than-average drivers (and lovers), but we’re all good people, too, right? Well, not according to Paul Piff.

Paul works in the Morality, Emotion and Social Hierarchy Laboratory at University of California, Irvine, and he is an assistant professor in UCL’s Department of Psychology and Social Behaviour. He’s semi-famous in certain circles for an experiment he ran a few years ago involving rigged two-player games of Monopoly, and how the winning players of the games invariably believed they’d won because they were better at the game than the other player. They all conveniently overlooked that they’d been allowed to roll the dice twice each turn, had started the game with twice as much money as their opponent and received twice as much each time they passed Go. And they’d been awarded those privileges based on the toss of a coin before the game, meaning their “victory” essentially came down to dumb luck – a straight 50/50 chance.

Paul is interested in how social class and economic inequality inform relationships between individuals. What he has found, and what he has to say, is often uncomfortable stuff. In another of his experiments he asked undergraduate students to stand close to a pedestrian crossing and observed the behaviour of the drivers as they approached the crossing to see if they were – to use his words – “more or less inclined to break the law”.

What he found is fascinating. In California it’s against the law not to stop for someone who is waiting at a pedestrian crossing. Paul carried out this experiment on several days and involved hundreds of cars. And his data shows clearly that as the value of the car increased, the driver’s tendency to break the law increased as well. The more expensive the car approaching the crossing, the less likely it was to stop.

luxury car

He found that exactly none of the cars in the least expensive category broke the law, while almost 50 per cent of the cars in the most expensive category broke the law.

I’ve been thinking about Paul’s experiment since the other night when I drove home from a party and sailed straight through a crossing while the pedestrian waiting to cross roundly abused me. It was dark, and they were wearing dark clothes, but that would have been little consolation had I hit them.

I’m pretty sure this incident occurred for a combination of reasons – lighting, inattention and fatigue, and the pedestrian being one of those people who steps from the curb and just assumes the traffic has seen them and will stop – but what if Paul is right and there’s more to it than that? What if my driving an expensive car is symptomatic of an attitude towards others?

I do know that some of my cars – and now that I think about it, it’s the less expensive ones, generally – require quite a bit of actual driving, demanding attention and engagement; the experience in the more expensive cars is definitely more cocooned, I generally listen to the music louder, and I’m significantly less connected to the driving experience and the conditions outside. So for now, and without wanting to dwell on the implications of Paul’s research too much, that’s what I’m going to put it down to.

But I will pay attention next time I’m out in one of the more luxurious of my cars, because if there’s anything worse than conforming to a stereotype, it’s actually being a dick.

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