The authors of the original study saw themselves rewarded with 1,270 academic citations and countless appearances in the media, such as on the BBC, in The Economist and in the New York Times. ‘The study has a real impact,’ Smeets recalls. ‘It’s included in the curriculum and used as a basis for other research to this day, while the authors themselves continue to make frequent media appearances to discuss this topic.’ However, Smeets claims that a careful reading of the article throws up obvious red flags.
Smeets and fellow researchers at Erasmus University Rotterdam, New York University and Milan’s Bocconi University contacted the original authors, asking to see their research design notes. ‘Crucial documents are missing, seemingly because they were lost or mislaid,’ Smeets says. ‘During the publication process, the authors claimed to the editor of the scientific journal involved that we had never approached them – but we could show an email trail to prove that we had.’
Smeets had already conducted a similar study in Maastricht and Aachen, while his co-author Jan Stoop attempted to reproduce the outcomes in Rotterdam. However, neither of these studies yielded the same outcomes as the original. To remove all doubt, Smeets and his colleagues visited the location of the original study: Berkeley, California. They observed a group 2.5 times the size of the original research population. ‘Our group crossed the road 394 times. 43.6% of all cars failed to stop.’
‘In contrast with the original findings, we found no difference between the percentage of expensive cars that gave way to pedestrians and the percentage of cheaper cars.’ In a replication of the original study, the researchers observed another pedestrian crossing to investigate whether expensive cars cut off other drivers more frequently . They counted 683 cars passing by. Smeets: ‘Again, we found no significant difference.’
Other claims in partial publications of the original study did not stand up to scrutiny either. Supposedly, the rich are more prone to adultery and even stealing, but less likely to donate to good causes. ‘On the other hand, international research shows that – relatively speaking – the rich donate a bigger share of their income and do voluntary work more often. This doesn’t necessarily mean that rich people are nice, merely that they’re able and willing to do more in this regard.’
Smeets’ study has now been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. He believes that bursting this bubble is evidence of academia’s capacity for self-regulation and the importance of transparency when it comes to research. ‘Academic research forms the basis for key social decisions. The media’s tendency to cut and paste information can lead to a distorted view of reality before you realise that it’s happening. If there’s a lesson to be learnt from this, it’s that we should be transparent about our data and methods – and also that all people are equally evil, irrespective of the type of car they drive.’
Minah H. Jung, Paul Smeets, Jan Stoop and Joachim Vasgerau: ‘Social status and unethical behavior: Two replications of the field studies in Piff et al. (2012)’ in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (2023).