Matthew Sweet in More Intelligent Life:
Cycling one morning over the East Bay Hills, Professor Dacher Keltner had a near-death experience. “I was riding my bike to school,” he recalls, “and I came to a four-way intersection. I had the right of way, and this black Mercedes just barrelled through.” With two feet to spare before impact, the driver slammed on his brakes. “He seemed both surprised and contemptuous, as if I was in his more important way.” Keltner’s first response was a mixture of anger and relief: no Berkeley psychology professor with surfer-dude hair had been smeared over the Californian tarmac that day. His second was more academic. Was there, he wondered, a measurable difference between the behaviour of Mercedes owners and those of other cars? Cars that didn’t cost twice the average annual income of an American middle-class family? Had the guy who nearly killed him bought something else, along with $130,000-worth of German engineering? The professor put a group of students on the case; sent them out with clipboards to loiter on the traffic islands of Berkeley. They monitored vehicle etiquette at road junctions, kept notes on models and makes. They observed who allowed pedestrians their right of way at street crossings; who pretended not to see them and roared straight past. The results couldn’t have been clearer. Mercedes drivers were a quarter as likely to stop at a crossing and four times more likely to cut in front of another car than drivers of beaten-up Ford Pintos and Dodge Colts. The more luxurious the vehicle, the more entitled its owner felt to violate the laws of the highway.
What happened on the road also happened in the lab. In some experiments Keltner and his collaborators put participants from a variety of income brackets to the test; in others, they “primed” subjects to feel less powerful or more powerful by asking them to think about people more or less powerful than themselves, or to think about times when they felt strong or weak. The results all stacked the same way. People who felt powerful were less likely to be empathetic; wealthy subjects were more likely to cheat in games involving small cash stakes and to dip their fists into a jar of sweets marked for the use of visiting children. When watching a video about childhood cancer they displayed fewer physiological signs of empathy.