HELSINKI — Here’s a scenario many motorists have encountered at one point or another: you were just cut off in traffic, and as you pull alongside the offending car, you notice it’s a BMW being driven by an individual talking on the phone, completely oblivious to the fact he nearly caused a major accident. It may sound like an unfair stereotype, but after observing these situations frequently himself, University of Helsinki professor of social psychology Jan-Erik Lönnqvist set out to answer a question that had been weighing on his mind.
Are aggressive and thoughtless drivers drawn to high priced cars in the first place, or does getting behind the wheel of a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes turn otherwise careful drivers into reckless speedsters?
The subsequent results confirmed what many likely assume in the first place. Self-absorbed individuals, more specifically men characterized as callous, disagreeable, and stubborn, are much more likely than others to own a luxury automobile. Of course, these vehicles usually don’t come cheap, which is why most of time these self-centered men just so happen to be rich as well.
“I had noticed that the ones most likely to run a red light, not give way to pedestrians and generally drive recklessly and too fast were often the ones driving fast German cars,” Lönnqvist comments.
Prior research had already found that people behind the wheel of expensive cars are more likely to break traffic laws, but most had attributed those findings to the idea that wealth has a “corrupting effect” on people. Lönnqvist’s study and subsequent findings, though, approached the topic from a different perspective. Ultimately, he discovered that certain people, regardless of how much money they have in their bank account, are drawn towards the status and superiority that driving these cars represents. Moreover, the same traits that attract people to high status cars also make them more likely to disregard traffic laws.
For the research, 1,892 Finnish car owners were surveyed. Each driver answered a series of questions regarding their car model, driving habits, consumption habits, wealth, and personality. Participants’ answers were then analyzed using the Five‐Factor Model, a widely known model of assessing a person’s personality traits based off of five main categories (openness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion).
The ensuing results were very clear: aggressive and conceited men are much more likely than anyone else to be found driving high status cars.
“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,” Lönnqvist explains. “But 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.”
The study also came to a second, more unexpected conclusion. Besides conceited individuals, conscientious people also seem to be attracted to high-end cars. For the purposes of the study, a conscientious personality was defined as someone who is well organized, respectable, ambitious, and reliable.
“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 theorizes.
The connection between being conscientious and preferring expensive cars was observed in both men and women. However, only self-absorbed men, not women, were connected to high status cars. Professor Lönnqvist says he really can’t say definitively as to why this is the case, but hypothesizes that most women just don’t view cars as status symbols.
“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,’ He concludes.
The study is published in the International Journal of Psychology.