Upper-Class Drivers More Likely to Break Rules of the Road

Do the findings of this study make you think twice about crossing the street in an affluent neighborhood? Photo by Norris Wong.

According to new research from the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, upper-class individuals are more likely to break the law while driving, compared to lower-class individuals. In both naturalistic and laboratory methods, upper-class individuals were also 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.

The first two studies of this research focused on road behavior as it differs by social class. The researchers selected a naturalistic method and observed a busy four-way intersection in California with stop signs on all sides. The researchers identified a driver’s social class through the vehicle, believing that a vehicle is a material symbol of someone’s social status.

Two separate teams of two coders, who were unaware of the hypotheses of the study, stationed themselves at the opposite corners of the intersection, out of the driver’s sight. The coders were then told to identify an approaching vehicle in a quasi-random fashion and code the characteristics of the vehicle and driver before it reached the stop sign, by taking into account the car’s make, age and physical appearance. The coders were then asked to record whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn, which is a behavior that violates the California Vehicle Code.

On average, 12.4 percent of the recorded drivers cut in front of other road users. Those identified to be in lower classes cut people off less than 10 percent of the time, but drivers identified as upper-class did so around 33 percent of the time.

The researchers then studied whether the same unethical behavior applied when pedestrians were involved. As in the first study, coders positioned themselves at an intersection, identified the characteristics of the car and the driver, and recorded whether the driver cut off a pedestrian who was attempting to cross the intersection, which is also a violation of the California Vehicle Code.  This time around, 34.9 percent of the drivers failed to yield to pedestrians, and close to 45 percent of those were cars identified as upper-class.

Researchers believe that greater resources, freedom and independence from others among the upper class may give rise to self-focused social ethical behavior. Independence, the researchers say, may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased perceptions of risk. Similarly, when resources are available, like money, dealing with the consequences of unethical behavior may not be seen as such a burden and may increase such behavior. The researchers also believe that these characteristics may shape feelings of entitlement and inattention to the consequences of one’s actions, further fueling such behavior. All of these factors together may give rise to culturally shared norms among upper-class individuals, the researchers add.

As clear as their findings may be, the researchers are quick to admit that their results should be interpreted within the confines of certain caveats, and that there are exceptions to the trends documented in this study. The researchers also add that greed is a universal motivator and not necessarily unique to a social class. However, one social class exhibits this behavior more freely.

“Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata,” the researchers explain. “[…] the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing.”

What do you think of this study’s findings? Are you surprised? Do you have any suggestions on how this behavior can be corrected?

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