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Can Your Car Make You An Unethical Driver?


When there's room to spread out, we often take advantage of it. Think about a big car or an SUV. You're behind the wheel, you roll the window down. You might prop up your left elbow. The other arm is outstretched on the wheel. It all sounds nice and relaxing, but it could have some major consequences. There's new research suggesting that you are more likely to blow a stop sign or a red light and not even know it. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to explain this.

And Shankar, welcome to our not-so-spacious studio.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Happy to be here, David.

GREENE: So tell me, what the deal here? What is this connection?

VEDANTAM: So we all have stereotypes, David about different drivers and drivers of different kinds of cars. I spoke with Andy Yap at MIT. He's just completed a study on how the size of your car affects how you drive. It comes down, he told me, to your posture in the car. Here he is.

ANDY YAP: If posture can lead to power, and there is this research, whole body of research showing that power leads to corrupt behavior, we wanted to see if posture can lead to corrupt behavior.

GREENE: Hang on a second. Break that down for me. Posture leading to corrupt behavior while you're in your car. What does that mean?

VEDANTAM: Well, Yap is bringing together two things we've known for a long time in psychology, David. There's been research showing that power can lead to unethical behavior. So if you give people even modest amounts of power, it increases the risk that they will act unethically. That's one strain of research.

There's this other strain of research that suggests that they way you sit and stand, your posture, shapes whether you feel powerful. I mean we've all seen the CEO pose, you know, your feet up on the desk and your hands laced behind your head. It turns out when you bring volunteers into a laboratory and you make then sit in these expansive poses, they actually feel more powerful.

Yap has connected these two bodies of research and he's saying if you're in a car that allows you to sprawl out, can that make you feel more powerful and can that in turn lead to unethical behavior where drivers, you know, literally cut corners?

GREENE: So how do you test this idea? Are you telling people act like you're king of the world, just sprawl out and do your thing?

VEDANTAM: Not quite. What he did was he brought a bunch of volunteers in and had them drive in a driving simulator. He had some of the volunteers sit very close to the steering wheel in this kind of constricted posture and he had others sit in this expansive posture, you know. The ergonomics of the simulator made them sprawl out. They had to hold the steering wheel at a distance.

And he gave them a driving test and he told them every time they hit an object, they were supposed to stop and count to 10. And what he found was that people sitting in the expansive postures were more likely to feel powerful and as a result they were more likely to cheat. When they hit objects, they didn't stop and count to 10.

GREENE: Oh, so they're actually simulating hit and runs here.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, of course, David, this doesn't mean that every driver in a big car is going to be a reckless driver. I think the value of Yap's research is it suggests that the car has an effect on you. It changes your behavior. And in fact he retested the results of the lab experiment in New York City. It's illegal to double park in New York.

And so Yap and his colleagues, Abby Waslowack(ph), Brian Lucas(ph), Amy Cutty(ph) and Dana Carney(ph), they counted cars that were double parked in New York and then analyzed how spacious the cars were. Here's what he found.

YAP: People - vehicles with expansive driver space were more likely to be double parked in New York compared to vehicles that have a small driver space. The space in your car can shape how powerful you feel and that actually leads to more cheating behaviors, the likelihood of double parking in New York.

GREENE: Okay. So Shankar, if drivers who have a ton of room in the cockpit end up doing illegal things, is the solution just to put everyone in tiny little cramped cars?

VEDANTAM: Well, first of all, David, that would be completely unworkable in America. But second of all, even if you were King David and you could mandate this, it's not entirely clear whether it would work, and here's why. There's research that suggests that unethical behavior tends to be highest when you're either suffering from very high levels of stress or you have no stress at all.

So when you're in a big roomy car, when you have a lot of cockpit space, that gives you the feeling of power. Power gives you a feeling of autonomy and that lowers your stress, so you feel very little stress. But on the other hand, if you cramp everyone into the tiniest possible cars, you could potentially ramp up their stress and have counterproductive effects.

So rather than reshaping the entire automobile industry, the thing to do is for drivers to remember that they are vulnerable to these subtle biases.

GREENE: Or just everyone should buy mid-sized cars.

VEDANTAM: You said that, David, not me.

GREENE: Okay. Shankar Vedantam, he regularly comes in to talk about social science research and you can follow him, if you'd like, on Twitter @HiddenBrain and you can also follow this program @NPRGreene and @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.