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Study drives home point: The rich are different

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Southwest Sixth Avenues left lane entrance to northbound Interstate 405 regularly backs up while the middle lane is left to vehicles such as this Audi, whose driver tries to squeeze into the line and avoid the wait. Studies show drivers of expensive vehicles are often more likely to cheat in traffic situations.Nearly every day, Northwest Portland resident Anne W. tries to cross Northwest 25th Avenue at Lovejoy Street with her 19-month-old daughter in a baby carriage. And nearly every day Anne W. finds that most of the cars arriving at the intersection are willing to wait their turn at the four-way stop and patiently let them cross.

But a few cars don’t wait their turn at the stop signs, and there’s something particular Anne W. and her husband have noticed about them: The cars that don’t come to a full stop to let them cross are generally the most expensive ones.

“It’s been my experience, whether walking or riding in the car, that the Mercedes, the BMWs, the Audis are more likely to go out of turn,” she says.

Granted, that particular intersection has a high percentage of luxury cars, because Lovejoy turns into a rush hour gateway to Northwest Cornell Road heading into the West Hills. A recent afternoon count revealed that about half the cars at the intersection could be classified as high-end vehicles.

There’s a word to describe drivers who don’t wait their turn at a four-way stop: cheaters. A lot of people cheat in life, maybe more than once did. Students cheat to improve their grades, taxpayers cheat on their IRS forms to keep more of their money. Some wealthy people flout the rules so they can stay on top, and poor people cut corners trying to get ahead.

But University of California-Berkeley social psychologist Paul Piff recently published a study purporting to prove that when it comes to comparisons, the rich cheat more. Much of Piff’s data comes from observing four-way stops and who takes proper turns and who doesn’t. Also, his observations look at which cars stop (and which ones don’t) to allow pedestrians to cross in crosswalks.

Consistently, Piff says, drivers of luxury cars in both scenarios didn’t play by the rules as frequently. They jumped their turns at intersections about 30 percent of the time, compared to 8 percent for drivers of the least valuable cars and 13 percent for cars rated in the middle. They zoomed past pedestrian decoys stepping into the crosswalk 45 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent for drivers of the least expensive cars.

Yes, these were California drivers. But in 50 followup studies using hundreds of men and women in psych labs, Piff found that wealthy people (he calls them upper-class individuals) are more willing to cheat and cut corners to gain a prize than people of lesser means. One scenario, for example, asked participants how likely they would be to return money if a coffee shop barista gave them too much change.

“I kept finding these amazing patterns of results,” says Piff, who attended Reed College 10 years ago. “Having more makes you feel more entitled.”

The title of Piff’s paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.”

‘Entitled’ drivers

You shouldn’t be surprised, says David Callahan, author of “The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Do Well.” Callahan says everybody cheats more now than their counterparts did 50 years ago, whether on tax forms or in school. Looking at Piff’s work, he says there are a couple of variables to consider. Maybe, he says, wealthy drivers who don’t wait their turn at intersections may not be feeling entitled but may simply be in more of a hurry. Studies show the wealthy feel more rushed, he says.

“The people at the top are a lot busier and work harder,” Callahan says. “So the guy driving a Lexus may be an overscheduled lawyer or doctor, and the guy driving a 2004 Camry may be a professor on sabbatical.”

Sgt. Robert Voepel with the Portland Police Bureau’s Traffic Division isn’t quite sold on at least half of Piff’s traffic study. Voepel has participated in a number of the city’s crosswalk enforcement stings, writing tickets or warnings to drivers who didn’t stop for a city decoy pedestrian stepping out into the street. He hasn’t noticed a pattern with the types of cars he’s most frequently stopping at the events, but it wouldn’t matter because crosswalk running, he says, isn’t about drivers who feel entitled. It’s about drivers who are distracted, Voepel insists.

But Voepel can see why not taking turns at a stop sign intersection could be a matter of attitude. “A stop sign scenario, that might have to do with social status or wealth,” he says. “You’re competing for time with someone equally. ... I’m more important than you, so I have to be in front.”

An even better indicator of “me first” behavior, according to Voepel, are solo drivers who cheat by using the freeway carpool lanes. When he catches one, he says, he makes fans. “Everybody gives you thumbs-up when you stop someone in the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane,” he says.

Voepel says he never really notices the style of car when he pulls someone over for a traffic violation. Lt. Chris Davis of the traffic division says the same.

“You don’t remember them except the exceptional ones,” Davis says.

The one he remembers best was from 10 years ago when a woman was driving a new Subaru station wagon north on McLoughlin Boulevard where it turns into Grand Avenue in Southeast Portland. He stopped the woman for driving 20 miles faster than the posted speed limit just where it drops, and it was her “entitled reaction” that sticks with Davis.

“A brand-new Subaru and she went berserk,” Davis recalls. “She was yelling, screaming, ‘This isn’t fair, you can’t do this.’ She’s so mad she reaches up and pulls her own rear-view mirror off the windshield, and I’m just dumbstruck. Why would you do that to your own car?”

Davis, a police officer in the Phoenix area before moving to Portland, says Portland drivers are generally more law abiding and less likely to cheat than those he’s seen elsewhere. Statistics bear him out on that. The National Motorists Association ranks Oregon as the 41st state for the likelihood of a driver getting a traffic ticket. Montana is the state where drivers are least likely to get a ticket. Florida is the state where a driver is most likely to get ticketed.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nine of 10 students at affluent high schools will cheat, according to Lewis & Clark College researcher Mollie Galloway. High school students tell Galloway they feel compelled to cheat because of a system at top schools that demands achievement.

Those in the middle

Mollie Galloway has no idea if rich kids cheat more than poor kids. But she suspects they might because she knows rich kids cheat in school — a lot. And the reasons they cheat have to do with their family wealth and social status.

Galloway, an education researcher at Lewis & Clark College, started studying school cheats in the Bay Area and has continued in Portland high schools. Better than nine in 10 students at affluent high schools tell her confidentially they have cheated at least once.

“Across the board, students tell me cheating is the norm in these high schools,” Galloway says. “It’s rampant. It’s part of the everyday culture.”

The most common form of cheating is copying homework, followed by test cheating. About one in five students at affluent high schools admits to major cheating, as in turning in a paper that was copied from another source, and cheating more than once.

Galloway has confidentially interviewed hundreds of students at affluent high schools and heard repeatedly the same theme. “Students say, ‘The system encourages us to do whatever it takes to get ahead at whatever cost.’ “

Students tell Galloway that schools send a message by putting little effort into catching cheaters, and not severely punishing those they catch. Parents emphasize getting top grades in order to get into top colleges. What’s left are upper- and upper-middle-class students seeking to follow in their parents’ footsteps — but not exactly.

“What’s interesting in talking to these students is it’s not just about maintaining their parents’ material status,” Galloway says. “It’s about maintaining their identity, my identity as a student. I’m expected to be an A student, I have to maintain that identity, their identity as a future member of the professional class. In some ways there’s this sense of entitlement, that I should have that status. That status is mine.”

Unfortunately, Galloway hasn’t yet spent time in economically disadvantaged schools to see if the students there are cheating as frequently as the wealthy kids. She’s conducted interviews with low-income students at the upper-income high schools, but not enough, she says, to draw any conclusions yet.

But Berkeley’s Piff has some thoughts along those lines. In some of his experiments he has started out with subjects in the lab who were neither greedy nor inclined to cheat, and turned them into cheaters. Sometimes he convinces them that greed in a particular experiment was justified. Simply having honest, lower-income subjects spend time writing about the benefits of greed changes their attitude, according to Piff.

“Then they start to act like rich people,” he says.

In one experiment, Piff left a jar of candy in a room and told subjects the candy was for children who were coming in later for another experiment. Wealthier people consistently took more candy. But, Piff says, when he convinced poorer people that they were among the wealthiest among the subjects in the room that day, they started to take more candy.

“The more you think you have, the more self-focused you become,” Piff says. “You think of yourself as slightly larger than other people. You feel more entitled to things.”

“Cheating Culture” author Callahan says all this spells trouble for a country in which the upper classes already are accumulating an ever-greater percentage of the nation’s wealth. If they are the ones most willing to cheat, it will be harder to narrow the income gap between the wealthy and the rest.

Callahan’s take is that there are actually two classes most willing to cheat, the wealthy and the very poor.

“If you’re at the bottom of the system and feel the system is stacked against you, you may feel cheating is the only way to survive and it’s justified because the system is unfair,” he says. “If you’re at the top of the system you may feel you are above the rules and that you’re not going to be held


The great majority of people are in the middle and they are the ones most likely to be honest, Callahan says, whether filling out tax forms or waiting their turn at an intersection stop sign. They are the ones, he says, who are “getting whacked by the system.”

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