Scientists Watch Cars at an Intersection, Make Grand Claims About Greed

By Veronique Greenwood | March 1, 2012 10:54 am

The intersection in question.

For two Fridays in June 2011, from 3 to 6 pm, two experimenters sat near an intersection in San Francisco and watched the cars. They arranged themselves so that drivers couldn’t see them, and every now and then, they recorded the make and physical appearance of a car and tried to guess the gender and age of the driver. As their chosen cars pulled up to the intersection, they kept track of which ones cut off others. Later, in another study, they positioned an experimenter at a crosswalk. They took note of which cars neglected to stop for the pedestrian.

No, this is not performance art—it’s science!

These studies, and five others that had people variously taking candy from children and pretending to be unscrupulous bosses, were recently published as a paper, in which the researchers claim they collectively show a connection between higher socio-economic class and greed.

The cars perceived as high-status turned out to have been the most frequent cutter-offers. The “upper-class” subjects reported that they took more candy. The subjects with higher socioeconomic class more frequently chose not to tell a job candidate that the job would soon be eliminated and had better opinions of greed. The other studies were a mish-mash of related designs, all producing similar kinds of results, which many media outlets have interpreted as “Wealthy People = Greedy Jerks.”

But we’re having a pretty hard time drawing all these pieces together to see what the researchers state in their introduction: “We reason that increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritize self-interest over others’ welfare and perceive greed as positive and beneficial, which in turn gives rise to increased unethical behavior. We predict that, given their abundant resources and increased independence, upper-class individuals should demonstrate greater unethical behavior and that one important reason for this tendency is that upper-class individuals hold more favorable attitudes toward greed.” Wow! There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. Like the collection of studies, all of various relevance to real situations, it’s a conglomeration of ideas, in various states of proven-ness and relationship to each other. It may well be that people with more resources have greater independence and are less apt to be polite to others. It may also be that people with lots of money think it is alright to look out for oneself when the situation provides a chance to profit. It may be that inclination is what led them to be successful—or perhaps, if they were born into money, they copied the attitude from their parents.

But the tests used in this flurry of studies test isolated moments and tricks of the brain, and to extrapolate from them to larger statements, the researchers would have been better served by taking it one step at a time and making it very clear that they had considered all the reasons for their results. Take these statements with a grain of salt, is the advice dispensed by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones on this study, and we agree.



  • Daniel Kuehn

    I need to read their words rather than your interpretation, but I’m guessing the authors are perfectly aware of how to interpret their results. No offense, but I trust psychologists to tell me about human behavior and I trust molecular biologists like yourself more on matters of molecular behavior.

  • 65736485

    American science is in decadence, it’s youth is illiterate in maths and scientific inquiry; the promising ones are either designing algorithms to make others ‘click’ and ‘tweet’, or working for the hedge-fund industry.

    The socio-economic divide has become so large, that it influences academic research, to the extent of blatantly portraying bias in their results; what a shame, i guess the only way forward is to keep importing foreigner; while the nationals remain brainwashed via social media, apple, and the such.

    complacency and the comforts of first world superpower have corrupted. Until you stop teaching bad archaic science to the young ones, by the book rote mechanical learning, and rid yourselves of ridiculous liberal art requirements then you will see a changing force. You have incredibly diversity, but unfortunately, half of college students prefer business degrees. You treat politicians as celebrities, and scientists as peons.

    This is the most absurd, terrible, weak, and poorly analyzed scientific report i have read in my entire life. What good can possibly come out of a country that fosters the easy way out and reflects socio-economic political bias in their scientific reporting?

  • william czander

     In 2010, the wealthiest 20
    percent of the population now collected 55 percent of total annual national
    income, more than the total combined income of the bottom 80 percent. This is
    the highest such figure ever recorded in American history. Norton and Ariely, in Bookman (2010) maintained that
    the richest 20 percent controlled 84 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the
    poorest 40 percent of households controlled a paltry 0.3 percent. This is
    another “gilded age.”
    But unlike the gilded age at the turn of the 20th century
    this gilded age, 100 years later, does not mark the birth of modern America,
    but instead the opposite, it marks the beginning of the death of modern
    America. These barons of the second gilded age were very different than the
    barons of the earlier age. They did not accumulate their great wealth by
    building and industrializing this once great country. No. They have benefited
    by destroying it. This is why those in the bottom 80 percent are both
    frightened and outraged. Their outrage is manifested in the Occupy Wall Street
    movement in Manhattan, which has mushroomed into hundreds of towns and cities
    across America and in over 80 countries. The message is clear: Gilded Age II
    barons, do not practice what everyone should have learned in kindergarten-
    Share. These barons do not want to share. They want all the toys and their
    $36,000 per day income to go untaxed. These barons want the bottom 80 percent
    to pay the taxes, work for minimum wage and pay their own benefits. And smile.

  • Joshua Eric Turcotte

    While the quality of these studies should be examined, I still suspect there is a strong link between wealth and amorality; I would simply suggest that it may turn out to be the other way around… that those who are more willing to be amoral and prioritize their personal profit over the wellbeing incur a serious advantage over those who choose, instead, to balance their needs against those of others, and have better odds of being wealthy and privileged, being willing to abuse for profit.  Still, there does seem to be long-standing evidence that being born into privilege definite skews the equation.

  • Scott Templeman

    this was bad science plain and simple, if some of the rankled previous commenters are eager to actually learn solid psychology I suggest they look up confirmation bias (or the scientific method for that matter). Alternatively they may want to find an outlet that will better confirm their biases.

  • Liz

    i would like to see more research done than two fridays from 3-6pm. confirmation bias? possibly. its extremely hard to simply stereotype a socio-economic class like this. ive seen just as many “lower class” drivers cut people off as do “higher class” drivers. this seems more like a high school project than a scientific study. 

    • Soquel by the Creek

      Funny you should mention “high school project”.  A student at a recent science fair did a detailed study on whether drivers came to a full stop, a rolling stop, or blew through a stop sign depending on whether or not they saw an observer.  He extensively tracked time of day, make, model, and color of the cars.  I’ll see if his data correlates at all with the Berkeley results.  After all, if it’s real science, the results can be duplicated by somebody else.

      Anybody know where the Berkeley results are published?  Are they published.

  • Blue-13

    I agree that the studies made too many assumptions about comparatively short moments — almost a “sampling” of sorts, not nearly comprehensive enough to draw solid conclusions. We all know that just because subjects drive vehicles in a duck-like manner and treat job candidates like ducks would and eat duck-appropriate volumes of candy, doesn’t mean that … Oh! Wait a moment — I think I get it now.

  • deacibi

    How refreshing to see this moronic study dissected rather than presented as fact, unlike the treatment it has received from other news outlets.

  • Soquel by the Creek

    There’s a fundamental flaw with the first method, where researchers observed people driving “high status” cars.  Living in Silicon Valley, I can attest that many people that drive “high status” cars are not themselves high status individuals.  There’s a big “wannabe” factor involved for these cars.  Likewise, I personally know a number of well-off people who drive old beaters, which could be why they have money in the first place.

    Because that the study comes from U.C. Berkeley, home to many an Occupy protester, methinks there might also be some observer bias involved–but that’s just a hunch.  Trust but verify.  I can’t wait to see the actual paper and methods used.
    Me?  I tend to judge all individuals by their merits instead of by their wealth, poverty, age, race, sex, sexual preference, religion, national origin, weight, favorite ice cream flavor, or whether they wear boxers or briefs. 

  • bear

    So they just verified what everyone who drives already knows.

  • Denise

    I think you need to factor in the placement of the people being studied.  This same study in small rual town USA might prove a different outcome!

  • 2piornot2pi

    I’m relatively rich, drive a crap truck, obey the law, and have extreme respect for others who also obey the law. I have noticed a vague/general connection between those who drive expensive cars and their lack of respect for the law and others on or near the road. I’ve often wanted do try a similar experiment involving these things with more than just my meandering driving experiences. There is an obvious connection between wealth and snobbishness etc, but I believe the important part cannot be proven: being rich begets snob/selfish mentality, or being snobbish/selfish begets wealth. Kinda sad we are like this, but at least there are exceptions.

  • Raymond

    Just more “mumbo jumbo” fancy expensive words meant to disguise the truth “rich” people could care less if you knew or not.  They are just plain greedy with a heaping side of audacity.   We all know this to be true even thouogh some “have a hard time understanding” the  hundreds of similar studies conveniently swept under the rug because “class warfare” is not productive to their “bottom line”.

  • Joemuseum

    Lame blog. No information but a critic of those with information. I’m not sure which is worse: a newspaper article making grand assumptions based on research or a critic asking us to make them.

  • Bonniemreeves

    This is such bull science. So you assume that those who drive Mercedes, etc. are rich. Right. As the owner of an accounting firm for many many years, I can attest to the fact that many of my MBZ driving clients had leased these autos and were in debt up to their sunroofs. Junk science, guy.

    • Stired

       It might be helpful if you read the study, not just an article which distills it down to a few sentences.  There were many more aspects of this study – 7 experiments in all.  Please think for yourself and take the time to actually review the findings.

  • Anonymous

    Because the upper-class have more resources we predict that they will demonstrate more unethical behavior. “Scientists”? I don’t think so.

  • Srijozus

    was it Voltaire who said that behind every fortune lies a crime?

  • Ribbet

    Tom says

    What a coincidence, William Czanderwas right about the controlling 0.3 of the poorest house holds. 0.25%  is exactly what I get in intrest on my money market account. Good going william. I am the poor. 

  • Jrkidd3

    I have to disagree that the wealthier people get the greedier they are in their behavior. In fact, I believe that in many cases the exact opposite is true. I know a wealthy man who bought an air evac helicopter for the Honduran government, out of his own pocket, to rescue people after a devastating mud slide. I knew another wealthy man, now deceased, who paid for a new library in my own town. Most people thought he did it for the tax breaks, but when I asked him why he did it he said because when he was a kid he had to walk 20 miles to go to a library. I have never known a wealthy person to try to sue someone else to get out of having to work a job nor have I known a wealthy person with a build in radar that tells them how to get freebies from the American taxpayers. As for how people behave in traffic, I have noticed one thing that seems to be true much more often than not: When I am driving along and someone gets on my back bumper so close that I can’t see their front bumper in my rear-view mirror, 9 times out of 10 it’s an overweight white woman who never moves fast any where but on the highway, which she seems to feel that she owns. (I happen to be white myself so my own race is not a factor in this assessment) To try and use “Science” to conclude that the wealthier people are the greedier they are is absurd. People are people wherever you find them, it’s what you’re looking for that makes all the difference.


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