In another experiment, Stephens presented firefighters and MBA students with the following hypothetical situation: “You just bought a new car, and then you find that your friend has purchased the exact same car. How do you feel?” The firefighters were overwhelmingly pleased and said things like, “Fantastic. He gets a great car.” The MBA students were negative or ambivalent. “I would feel slightly irritated,” one said. “It spoils my differentiation,” said another. (Madison Avenue discovered and manipulated this bifurcation in the American self-image long ago: When it sells trucks, the ads might show a parking lot full, pulled up at a multigenerational picnic, with slogans like “Take Family Time Further.” When it sells sports cars, the commercials show a car zooming down the highway alone. The slogan for the BMW M3 even nods in the direction of Piff’s discovery about the drivers of high-end cars and traffic rules: “Street Legal. Pretty Much.”)
New York magazine’s cover story takes a look at a bunch of research that basically shows that the more money people have, the more likely it is that they’ll exhibit jerk-like behavior. Of course, like a lot of new research, we should take this with a grain of salt (I’d like to think that I’d wouldn’t gradually become a jerk if I started rolling in it, but who knows). But the story is worth reading just to look at the sort of experiments all these researchers are running. One of the experiments involved the researchers going to a busy intersection in Northern California, and examining the behaviors of drivers based on what kind of car they drove: “Upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex, and amount of traffic.” It is also possible that rich people can drive like maniacs because if they total their cars, they can just go out and buy new ones—that is, if they survive.