Driving While Rich?

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Mar 31, 2015

Does being rich make you a less courteous motorist? A recent BBC report highlights the work of Paul Piff, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, who thinks, yes, big bucks do make a driver mean.

We sent our blogger to St. Petersburg Florida, in this Bentley, for science! (Jamie Lincoln Kitman)

According to Piff’s website, his work has explored how social hierarchy, inequality, and emotion shape relations between individuals and groups. His chief finding to date? “[I]ncreased wealth and status in society lead to increased self-focus and, in turn, decreased compassion, altruism, and ethical behavior.” Behind the wheel, Piff opines, this leads to more aggressive driving, especially with respect to pedestrians and things like stopping for them in crosswalks.

Before you i-bankers and trust-funders out there start your lawyers composing tart missives detailing your lives of charity, compassion and courtesy, let it be said that the science is unsettled in this area. Some researchers disagree with Piff, while others believe that simply thinking about money or the mere handling of cash – not the act of being rich itself –temporarily diminishes kindness.

While we’ve all experienced the phenomenon of rich assholes driving badly, it should be said there seem to be quite a few impecunious ones behind the wheel too as well. So I’m undecided. However, seeking to gather some hard data points in this area, I graciously accepted Bentley’s offer to drive their latest Continental, the GT V8 S, around the St. Petersburg, FL, area for a few days last week.

Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Vance Worley signs an autograph for Milo. Is he writing, “Don’t drive like your insufferable, 1%-er, Bentley owning father?" (Jamie Lincoln Kitman)

St. Pete was surprisingly genteel for this newbie visitor, the perfect escape from another distressingly winter-y March week in New York, and the Bentley was itself a rolling Rorschach test. You simply couldn’t fail to notice the $231,700 coupe with its blinding Apple Green paint (a $5,600 upcharge). Almost no one didn’t have an opinion about it. And if ever there was a rolling multiphasic personality test that might reveal the secret, inner asshole within, this car figured to be it.

For an additional research subject and test participant I had my young son, Milo, in tow, whose occasional outbursts of scolding invective are the only blemish on a six and three-quarter year run as a total sweetie pie.  Together, the lad and I visited the sites of St. Petersburg as guests of its Chamber of Commerce, which wants you to know that their city on the Gulf is not just ultra-proximate to major league baseball’s Grapefruit League. We did catch a couple of games, my son’s first spring training experience, and they were as idyllic, fun and fine as an older fan could imagine. Around town, we watched as municipal employees prepared its streets for the Firestone Grand Prix, an IndyCar event that was set to begin the following week (this past weekend) and which would bring tens of thousands of visitors to the region.

One day riding in the Bentley and already he refuses to share his dessert. With chef and owner of Sea Salt Chef, Fabrizio Aielli. (Jamie Lincoln Kitman)

But we also found ample else to do, with cultural activities (the Salvador Dali museum), lounging (on the white sand beach outside the Don Cesar resort), fine dining (Sea Salt) and recreation (kayaking from Fort DeSoto), among our agreeable pastimes, ones, I predict, that even the most urbane wealthy person would have no reason to find fault with or cause to become discourteous.

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The reaction to our loud, expensive car in Florida was entirely favorable as many stopped to exclaim just how much they loved it and/or its lurid paintjob. Attendants always gave us positions of parking prominence, even when we were being charged $5 for a spot on someone’s lawn near the ballpark. Needless to say, my standard tipping rates for all parking personnel went out the window. But they didn’t fall to the ground, instead, they headed skyward. For obvious reasons, it’s hard to look someone – even a pimple-faced teenager – in the eye when he’s handed back the keys to your psychedelically hued, stately pleasure dome which costs more than many area houses and you’re busy rootling around your pockets for two dollars in quarters.

An even more expensive car, the Rolls Royce Phantom, prepares to pass politely. (Jamie Lincoln Kitman)

Big tips were one way my exposure to extreme wealth actually made me a nicer person. And I’d have to say my road manners improved as well. Imagining that I would never take kindly to it were I a policeman or a pedestrian who’d just seen some arriviste in a thundering Bentley break the rule or even the spirit of law, I drove on most occasions like a grandmother, albeit one who had to hit triple digit speeds on an occasional stretch of quiet freeway so as to not be late for the mah-jong game. I didn’t just say that, did I? I thought it, because to say it would be rude, right? Or maybe it was thoughtless new me, the new, improved, wealth-enhanced, extra-hydrocarbon-burning self. Though I have to say the Bentley turned in a shockingly down-to-earth 22.8 mpg on those highway runs.

So, in conclusion, does being – or, as in my case, driving – rich make you mean? I’m not sure. Clearly, further study is needed.

Pride of place parking, outside the Hotel Indigo. (Jamie Lincoln Kitman)

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