Are you rich enough to be bad?

The rich have it all to lose; you'd expect them to follow the rules. But here's how they don't...

The less well-off realise they have more need of other people: in other posts we'll see that they have greater empathy, hold different moral beliefs, give more to charity and try harder to fit in. But you might expect the wealthy to come into their own in respect for the rules. After all, the system works pretty well for them.

Property rights depend on laws; cash can be safely stashed away in the bank only due to government support and regulation; the police protect them from the envious whilst they swan around in cashmere coats or Jimmy Choos. International trade, markets, the force of contracts, inheritance: all of the things they feed off are only possible due to laws and people’s willingness to follow them. If people stopped doing what the statutes said they were supposed to do, the rich would lose most. Whether rules and regulations are morality codified or a replacement for it, the well-heeled are their greatest beneficiary and they know it, surely?

Scientists in the US weren’t so certain. The researchers set up at a busy junction in California and played traffic cops for the day. They kept track of which vehicles illegally cut in front of others. They counted the drivers who refused to stop for pedestrians at a crossing.

They also graded the cars. The sleek Aston Martin of a hedge-fund manager or an early Facebook investor was classed as a ‘5’ in their system. The type of old banger my mum ferried me to school in was a ‘1’.

This is a neat experiment. It doesn’t rely on asking people what they would do in such-and-such a hypothetical situation: there are no fat men on rail tracks or crying babies hidden from soldiers. It doesn’t test how smoothly volunteers lie, or what they think researchers want to hear. It measures how people actually behave when they don’t know anyone is watching.

Not all rich people drive flash cars. But if you’re scooting around in a Tesla you’re not scrubbing floors or serving coffees. So, were loaded drivers more likely to be careful because they respected the rule of law or because they didn’t want the blood and brains of poor people messing up their paintwork?

Neither. The fancier the wheels, the less care the driver took of others. Nearly half of drivers in the most expensive two grades of vehicle hurtled past the pedestrian at the crossing versus about one-in-four of those in the ropiest two classes. Grade ‘5’ drivers were four times as likely to cut in front of other cars as those in the rust buckets. When the rubber hits the road, the affluent believe that the rules are for the little people.

For more insights into the quirky way your brain works, read Chris Paley's Unthink.

See Piff et al. 2012 for references; Kraus 2012 is an interesting review though with an odd definition of 'class' (for Brits anyway)