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Prius drivers behaving badly. Upper class more likely to cheat.

Prius drivers may claim they want to help the poor but they are less likely to want to slow down and let them cross the road.

You’d think Prius drivers would hold pedestrians, who emit less carbon, in high regard. But alas, roadside tests show about one third of Prius drivers broke crosswalk laws, putting the Prius drivers in the most-unethical-driver class. (As with all generalizations we ought remember that two thirds of Prius drivers did the right thing.) The common factor among unethical drivers was that shiny expensive cars were three times as likely to plow through the crosswalk. It’s not so much the hybrid, or the greenness, it’s the status

In a final experiment, the researchers took their hypothesis to the streets. At a busy intersection in the San Francisco Bay area, the team stationed “pedestrians” at crosswalks, with instructions to approach the crossing at a point when oncoming drivers would have a chance to stop. Observers coded the status of the cars’ drivers based on the vehicles’ age, make, and appearance. Drivers of shiny, expensive cars were three times more likely than those of old clunkers to plow through a crosswalk, failing to yield to pedestrians as required by California state law. High-status motorists were also four times more likely than those with cheaper, older cars to cut off other drivers at a four-way stop.

In an interesting twist, about one-third of Prius drivers broke crosswalk laws, putting the hybrid among the highest “unethical driving” car brands. “This is a good demonstration of the ‘moral licensing’ phenomenon, in which hybrid-car drivers who believe they’re saving the Earth may feel entitled to behave unethically in other ways,” Piff says. (The Prius results were observed but not analyzed for statistical significance in the study.)

Source: Science Mag

It could be a case of moral-licensing — the sense that drivers are helping the  community by driving the hybrid car, so they are entitled to be a more selfish driver. This occurred with Green shoppers too. People who bought more “green” items were less generous when dividing up money and more likely to lie in tests where there was a financial reward.

But the real culprit could be status. The bigger implications of the study show that when people consider themselves higher up the social scale they are more likely to cheat, and when classes are split according to income, the upper class are more likely to lie, deceive, and take from others.

Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior

Piff et al, 2011


Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

[Source: Piff et al (2012) Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior PNAS]


The question then is which came first? How many of the upper class got there because they cheated, and how many turned into cheats because they gained a high rank? Then there’s that other confounding question: how many lied about their income on the test?

The PNAS study suggests that even lower class people can behave badly if things are framed so they feel higher up the scale:

When participants were manipulated into thinking of themselves as belonging to a higher class than they did, the poorer ones, too, began to behave unethically. In one test, subjects were asked to compare themselves with people at the top or the bottom of the social scale (Donald Trump or a homeless person, for example.) They were then permitted to take candies from a jar ostensibly meant for a group of children in a nearby lab. Subjects whose role-playing raised their status in their own eyes took twice as many candies as those who compared themselves to “The Donald,” the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Science Mag

This study, below, suggests the problem may be the ancient sin of pride. Those who were induced to feel proud were more likely to be moral hypocrites. Those who were in a grateful mood were not.


Moral hypocrisy occurs when a person explicitly endorses a moral standard and yet behaves in violation of it. This study examined the effects of two positive emotions, pride and gratitude, on moral hypocrisy in an Asian context. Under a neutral mood condition, the level of moral hypocrisy found in the current Asian sample was about as high as that found in previous American studies. More importantly, compared to this neutral mood condition, participants induced to feel pride showed a similarly high level of moral hypocrisy, but those induced to feel gratitude exhibited little evidence of it.

[Source: Tong E. and Yang, Z. 2010. Effects of Anger, Guilt, and Envy on Moral Hypocrisy  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin January 1, 2012 38: 129-139 ]

Could it be that a class war brings out the worst behavior, and that all these research studies are just telling us what the old and wise have said for centuries, that there are seven deadly sins, and pride is the worst.


Image: Wikimedia, Author, Autophoto

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