It’s not that all of them are assholes, but according to a new study, self-centered men who are argumentative, stubborn, and overall disagreeable are much more likely to own a high-status car such as an Audi, BMW or Mercedes.
It’s a familiar trope: here you are, driving a normal-priced car when suddenly a car cuts you off. It’s as if the driver doesn’t even see you, doesn’t even acknowledge your very existence.
The BMW syndrome.
Whether it’s a BMW, an Audi, Mercedes, or some other high-status car, we’re more inclined to believe that the driver is not a nice person — and there’s some science behind that too.
Previous research has confirmed that the drivers of expensive cars are more likely to break traffic regulations. The fancier the car, the more likely it is that the driver is a jerk.
That has generally been interpreted through the corrupting effect of wealth. Wealthier people tend to have more expensive cars, and they care less about rules and regulations; they’re also less likely to care less about the potential fine they might get.
But that might not be telling the whole story, Jan-Erik Lönnqvist believes. Lönnqvist, a professor of social psychology at Helsinki University, was curious about driving habits. Like so many other people, he noticed that Audi and BMW drivers seemed much more likely to ignore traffic regulations. He wanted to see what type of people drive these high-status cars, and whether specific types of people are drawn to these cars in the first place (regardless of their financial assets), or whether the corruption happens as a result of the assets and car.
Do assholes drive Mercedes, or does driving a Mercedes turn you into an asshole?
This is how Lönnqvist and colleagues start their new study.
They surveyed 1892 car owners in Finland, correlating major personality traits to driving a high-status car
The results, the researchers write, are unambiguous: self-centred men who are argumentative, stubborn, disagreeable and unempathetic are much more likely to own a high-status car such as an Audi, BMW or Mercedes.
“These personality traits explain the desire to own high-status products, and the same traits also explain why such people break traffic regulations more frequently than others,” says Lönnqvist.
But it’s not only corruption. Instead, researchers found, it’s the people’s innate personality traits that lead them to buy these cars. In other words, jerks tend to buy high-status cars.
It’s pretty straightforward. Some brands of cars are seen as a symbol of high status. Some people want to display to everyone their superior status. What kind of people would do that? Well, not necessarily the nice ones.
“We also found that those whose personality was deemed more disagreeable were more drawn to high-status cars. These are people who often see themselves as superior and are keen to display this to others.”
This would help explain why owners of these cars tend to behave recklessly on the street — because it reflects their personality. Of course, since these are expensive cars, rich people tend to buy them more often, but that’s not the driving correlation.
Not just jerks
It’s not just people with (let’s say) questionable personality traits that are more likely to buy high-status cars. There’s another category who’s inclined to do the same thing: the conscientious.
People who are respectable, ambitious, reliable, and organized tend to take good care of themselves, and they want to reflect this as well.
“The link is presumably explained by the importance they attach to high quality. All makes of car have a specific image, and by driving a reliable car they are sending out the message that they themselves are reliable,” Lönnqvist explains.
Interestingly, this personality trait is found in both men and women. In contrast, the self-centered personality trait correlation seems to only apply to men. It’s not clear why this is the case, but it may very well be that cars have a higher status symbol than for women.
Of course, this is not a clear-cut study. The status value of a car is culture-dependent, and the affluent Finnish population might not be representative for other parts of the globe — though, if anything, one might expect the correlation to be even stronger in less affluent countries.
The team concludes that they hope to see more research in this field, not only to help uncover a curious psychological relationship but also to understand the reasons behind a superficial consumption trend.
There’s also an interesting twist. If cars are a cultural status symbol, what if we can use that to encourage more sustainable patterns, such as purchasing electric cars? We’re already starting to see that with brands such as Tesla, and there is perhaps an opportunity here for positive change.
“It would be great if consumers had other, sustainable ways of showing their status rather than the superficial consumption of luxury goods that often has negative consequences. We are already seeing that driving an electric car is becoming something of a status symbol, whereas SUVs with their high emissions are no longer considered as cool.”
The study has been published in the International Journal of Psychology.