Why driving a Mercedes makes you mean

Mercedes © getty Images

During my children’s half term I drove over 1,000 miles around the UK, mostly on the motorway. Along the way it became oddly obvious that you really can make a reasonable guess as to how a driver might behave from the brand of car he drives.

The meanest people on the roads appear to drive Mercedes (any model at all); BMW and Audi drivers come a close second (avoid small BMWs and big Audis); and everyone else is much of a muchness (in a good way – motorway driving is a co-operative activity and pretty much everyone behaves well).

I know none of you are very interested in my half term (Legoland for those who are… ) but it is worth noting that I am not the first to get out of a mid-range family car after a 300 miles run thanking my lucky stars that there aren’t more Porsche Cayennes on the road (there aren’t enough for me to generalise about their drivers). There is real evidence that driving expensive cars can make you mean.

This study by University of California psychology professor Paul Piff looks at a variety of things, including the way Americans behave at four-way stop signs (Americans use these instead of roundabouts; no one can understand why) and at pedestrian crossings. They found that drivers of high-status cars were significantly more likely than everyone else to cut up other drivers at the stops and to ignore pedestrians at the crossings. Nice.

So what’s going here? It isn’t, of course, about cars – it is about what those cars represent to the people driving them: money. A long list of studies show that inequality appears to make the few less empathetic: the richer you get, the less empathy you demonstrate, the more likely you are to cheat (to the extent of taking candy from babies…) and to shoplift, and the smaller a percentage of your income you are likely to give to charity.

According to Michael Lewis, “The problem is caused by the inequality itself: It triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains.”

This is all American research, of course – and it is causing some anxiety there on the basis that if the rich have less empathy than the poor, it is clearly hard for America’s elected politicians to properly see the needs of a large part of their voters (a member of Congress is paid $172,000 and most have significant other income from directorships etc).

Should we worry here? It doesn’t necessarily culturally translate – note the huge difference between the US and UK versions of the welfare states, for example, and the fact that many of our MPs are very far from rich. But there must be something in it. You can see that on the M6.