I'm not sure what it is about cars that make writers and researchers so excited to try and find causalities between being an asshole and the car you drive. There's plenty of anecdotal stereotypes we have, but I believe that our ethics are not defined by what we drive. This MIT/Berkeley study says otherwise.

The study, by Andy Yap of MIT and Dana Carney of Berkeley, posits that posture has a significant effect on a person's sense of power and resulting ethical actions. Essentially, the more power you feel, the less ethical you'll act. The study then goes on to suggest that driving larger cars with more open, roomy cockpits gives the driver a similar sense of power, which leads to less ethical driving.

Here's the abstract:

Research in environmental sciences has found that the ergonomic design of human-made environments influences thought, feeling and action. Here, we examine the impact of physical environments on dishonest behavior. Four studies tested whether certain bodily configurations—or postures—incidentally imposed by our environment lead to increases in dishonest behavior. The first three experiments found that individuals who engaged in expansive postures (either explicitly or inadvertently) were more likely to steal money, cheat on a test, and commit traffic violations in a driving simulation. Results suggested that participants’ self-reported sense of power mediated the link between postural expansiveness and dishonesty. Study 4 revealed that automobiles with more expansive driver’s seats were more likely to be illegally parked on New York City streets. Taken together, results suggest that: (1) environments that expand the body can inadvertently lead us to feel more powerful, and (2) these feelings of power can cause dishonest behavior.

Now, I'll admit that I was a bit skeptical going in. Equating a person's ethics with what they drive is almost always an inane experiment in crude stereotypes, as we've seen before. This time, while it is an actual, scientific study, there's some huge problems with their methods and conclusions.

First, based on some assumptions made in the study, it doesn't look like the researchers really knew shit about cars. Think about it — they're equating large, expansive cockpits and relaxed, open driving positions with more aggressive and unethical driving. A real gearhead would know that makes no sense. Performance cars — the cars you're more likely to feel genuinely powerful in — tend to have low, cramped cockpits, and tight, bolstered driving positions because that's what's better for aggressive, spirited driving.


Sitting with one arm across the back of an acres-wide vinyl bench seat in a '79 Thunderbird coupé is not remotely the same as being packed into an Aventador, and I think we all know which car we're more likely to drive like a maniac in.

The equating of a large cockpit with a sense of power just isn't accurate. Think about a city bus, for example. It has a large cockpit, a very 'commanding' driving height, but driving one isn't about raw power and control. Sure, it's large and cumbersome, and that means often people have to get out of the way, but the fundamental feeling of driving a bus is something closer to pushing a unicycle with a very important Jenga game on it through a cramped antique store. It's not the same.

Also, the method they used to test their thesis about driving is inherently flawed, because it doesn't really involve any driving. It involves playing a driving video game, which is absolutely not the same. Look at the setup they used:

As they describe it, it's

A realistic driving simulator was set up with a Playstation 3 and a Logitech driving force GT racing wheel, which included a steering wheel and foot-pedals.

That's in no way "a realistic driving simulator." It's a decent home gaming rig to have fun playing Gran Turismo or something, but if these researchers think it equates to the feeling of actually being in and driving a car, then they must also think playing Super Mario World on an SNES is a realistic portrayal of colossal-scale numismatics, suitable to used for real research.


Aside from the profound physical differences between sitting on a crappy office chair playing a PS3 and actually driving a car, there's the psychological differences as well. How can they get realistic assessments of "ethical" behavior when the subjects, who know they're playing a game, realize their actions have no real-world consequences whatsoever?

Driving a car unethically on an actual road, in an actual car can end in someone dying. Driving a car unethically in a video game can end in you having fun. That's a big difference.

Their fourth experiment, the only one not conducted in a lab, was this:

Study 4 used observational field-study methods, to investigate whether drivers in expansive automobile seats were more likely to commit parking violations, an established measure of corrupt behavior in the economics literature (Fisman & Miguel, 2007). Specifically, we focused on doubleparking—the parking of a car in an open lane such that adjacent vehicles are blocked in and active driving space is partially obstructed, which forces other drivers to maneuver through tighter spaces.

So, essentially, larger cars are more likely to be double-parked? I'm stunned.

Now, the study did adjust for the car's "status" (which could include large and smaller cars, really— think an R8 or a Maybach) and they said they adjusted for vehicle length as well by computing the drivers' seat volume in the following way:

As an index of the expansiveness of the each automobile’s driver’s seat, we calculated the volume of the space using information posted on respective car manufacturers’ websites. Volume was computed by halving the 13 THE ERGONOMICS OF DISHONESTY product of the wheelbase (length between the front wheels and the back wheels), height, and width of the car.

... and maybe I'm an idiot (studies suggest that as well) but I can't really see how that somehow separates the large cars that have large interiors from the fact that they're large overall. And, as a result, simply harder to find parking for in NYC, period.

I'm sure these two are fine researchers and there is evidence of genuinely interesting work here, but there's just too many sloppy methods used to come to the very suspect conclusion that what you drive determines your fundamental ethics.

The truth is the BMW group sells to any asshole with green money, whether or not they go for a Mini or a 7-series. Same goes for pretty much every car on the planet. The cars we pick are often very personal choices, but those choices aren't making us unethical jackasses. We have that part covered just fine no matter what we're driving.

If this study shows us anything, it's that these sorts studies are often useless and what you drive does not dictate your ethics. Drive what you love, for whatever reasons you have. That's it.

(Sources: NPR, Business Insider, Source Study)