MONDAY, Feb. 27, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- If a luxurious-looking car heads in your direction, you may want to look out. That's the message of a new observational study that contends that people who drive expensive cars are more likely to cut off pedestrians and ignore stop-sign etiquette.
The new research didn't just focus on driving habits, either. Other lab-based experiments done by the researchers found that study participants who considered themselves wealthy were more likely than those less wealthy to have unethical decision-making tendencies, be dishonest in a negotiation, or skirt the rules to boost their chances of winning a prize, among other traits, the study authors claimed.
The traffic experiments didn't prove that the seemingly rich drivers violated traffic laws because their wealth makes them selfish. Still, the drivers appeared to be putting themselves first, ahead of the law and the needs of others, said study lead author Paul Piff, a graduate psychology student at the University of California, Berkeley.
"They prioritize themselves," Piff said. "They're less oriented to what other people are doing, and they're seeming to perceive the law as potentially not applicable. It seems the more they have, the more attuned they become to their own wishes and desires."
At issue is how the rich are seemingly different from everyone else. Researchers have studied this topic, trying to understand how wealth -- or the lack of it -- affects people's decisions in areas such as ethical behavior.
Karl Aquino is professor of organizational behavior and human resources management at the Saunders School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Canada. He said that "there is accumulating evidence that says what's most psychologically beneficial about having wealth is that it gives [people] a greater sense of control over their environments, which reduces stress and probably provides a greater sense of certainty about life."
The new study looked at whether wealthy people acted as if their needs were more important than those of other people.
The researchers conducted several experiments, including two outside a laboratory. In one, the researchers watched a four-way intersection with four stop signs to see whether expensive cars, presumably driven by wealthier people, would be more likely to ignore the rules and not wait for their turn.
The "highest-status" cars, including certain years of Mercedes-Benz and BMW models, cut off other drivers 30 percent of the time compared to "lowest-status" cars such as the Honda Fit, Toyota Corolla or older trucks, which broke the rules 7 percent of the time, Piff said.
Cars that were presumably driven by richer people were also more likely to cut off pedestrians who were stationed at an intersection by the researchers.
The trends held up when the researchers adjusted their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by factors such as whether some cars were more likely to have drivers of a certain gender or age range.
Were people in expensive cars behaving this way on purpose? "I don't think it's necessarily that someone is actively thinking that they want to [cut off] someone else," Piff said. He said it may have more to do with "unconscious ways of attuning to the world, more focus on oneself versus a heightened vigilance."
The researchers also conducted several non-driving experiments in which they asked participants to rank their own social class in terms of income, education and job status, then to consider various scenarios that included measures of unethical decision making. Participants who perceived themselves as wealthier had a greater tendency to make unethical decisions, the investigators found.
So what might all this mean?
Adam Galinsky, a professor of ethics and decision in management at Northwestern University, said it seems the wealthy are more egocentric and more attuned "to one's own desires and needs in the moment."
But which comes first, wealth or egotistical behavior?
"Hard to say," said the University of British Columbia's Aquino. "There is some evidence that qualities of 'jerkiness' can help people become more financially successful, and probably there are some qualities like aggression, ruthlessness and a lack of empathy that contribute to one's ability to accumulate wealth."
"On the other hand," he added, "people's circumstances can change their thinking." So inner jerkiness, like wealth, might not be forever.
The study was published online Feb. 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
For more about ethics, visit Santa Clara University.