Cheating as Status Symbol

Two years ago I posted on "Tantrums as Status Symbols":

CEOs throw more tantrums than mailboys.  Similarly movie stars, sports stars, and politicians throw more tantrums than ordinary people  in those industries.  Also famous for their tantrums: spoiled young wives, bigshot patriarchs, elite travelers, and toddlers.   … Of course, like a swagger, the signal is not so much the tantum itself as the fact that someone can get away with it.

A related status indicator is acting like the usual rules don’t apply to you.  From the May 9 New Scientist:

John Trinkaus … One of his specialities is the study of minor acts of dishonesty and antisocial behaviour. In his 25 years of research, one demographical group has come to stand out above all others as being most likely to push boundaries and break rules. These are not disaffected teenagers nor Italian football hooligans. They are women van drivers.

Trinkaus’s important sociological finding is perhaps best illustrated by his extensive work covertly monitoring a supermarket’s "10 items or fewer" checkout over a span of nine years. As many of us may have seen for ourselves, Trinkaus found that some shoppers using this lane had more than 10 items. Some cunningly placed their items in groups of 10 and paid for each group separately. Trinkaus found that about 80 per cent of all the supermarket lane cheats were female van drivers.

This is by no means the only time that these women have been linked with small-scale social transgressions. Trinkaus has also shown that 96 per cent of women van drivers break the speed limit, compared with 86 per cent of male ones, and in one study, a staggering 99 per cent of female van drivers failed to come to a complete stop at a T-junction with a stop sign, compared with 94 per cent of the total.

Female van drivers feel like, and are, the highest status people in their social circle.  I’ll bet they throw a lot of tantrums.

Added:  One report says "Forty-three percent of cell phone users do not turn their phones off at the movies."  If rich men happened to be more guilty here, I doubt folks would be as eager to explain this away, e.g., maybe they are just extra busy.

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  • Greg Marsh

    There may be something else going on in the case of elite travellers. I’m thinking of Albert Hirschman’s work on exit and voice. The people in a market who are willing to select out of the mass market service with all its scale economics and instead pay the (huge) price premium for ‘elite’ travel are far more likely to be the most quality sensitive customers. That same minority will not only find imperfections highly irritating tout court, but will tend to view the delta cost of their travel as having paid for insulation against incompetence and discomfort. When disappointed, it is hardly surprising they get irritated.

    I suspect for similar reasons I often find myself far less tolerant of abberations in expensive hotels or restaurants. At a pricey meal, slow or impolite service feels seriously unacceptable. In a McDonalds, on the other hand, just having a clean table feels like a bargain.

    I’d even go further: I wonder whether quality sensitive people are more likely to become CEOs. From the outset, it’s a continually dissatisfied person who is driven by fury at the world’s imperfections to endure stress, long hours, and brutal competition. What’s that G B Shaw line? “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    Moreover, the more powerful you are, the more likely you are rationally to believe that your complaint can engender change. Surely no surprise, then, that ‘unreasonable’ CEOs should reasonably have tantrums. Maybe they’re even doing the rest of us a favour.

  • The more powerful you are, the more likely you are to rationally believe that your complaint can engender change.

    That makes a lot of sense, actually.

  • Greg your comments make more sense for tantrums than for cheating at lines or stop signs.

  • Greg marsh

    Robin, agreed; my comment was really directed at the first half of your post. But I’m also a little unpersuaded about whether female truck drivers’ acts of disobedience are more likely to be a ‘because they can’ status display rather than, say, their “unconscious need to outdo behaviour previously associated with men” which is apparently Trinkaus’s hypothesis, and no less plausible prima facie. Clearly more detailed research is needed next time I’m in Tescos.

    What I do know is that I’m now going to have to track down some of Professor Trinkaus’s other seminal studies, addressing as they do such crucial questions as:
    – What percentage of young people wear baseball caps with the peak facing to the rear rather than to the front?
    – What percentage of pedestrians wear sport shoes that are white rather than some other color?
    And of course:
    – What percentage of swimmers swim laps in the shallow end of a pool rather than the deep end?

    The kinds of questions tenured academics ought to be answering.

  • rosensmith

    This is hilarious! Greg, you may be on to something with your “quality-sensitive” thesis, but I don’t think it pertains to the tantrum tendency described in Robin’s post.

    Anecdotes != data and all that, but as a female grocery shopper who frequents upscale markets, I have noticed that the women who present themselves as higher-status–through pricey clothing, tennis-sculpted and tanned bodies, expensive haircuts and so forth–push their carts around the aisles with a studied inattention to other people. They will aim their carts into your path with bored, distracted looks on their faces, refuse to make eye contact or mutter so much as an “excuse me” as they reach past you to take an item off the shelf, and otherwise flout the unwritten rules of grocery aisle etiquette. (And I grow increasingly irritated by this–I wonder what that signals? I feel a tantrum coming on…)

  • Female van drivers feel like, and are, the highest status people in their social circle. I’ll bet they throw a lot of tantrums.

    Or they’re closest to the edge. Always late in their overscheduled day, they’re willing to risk the small chance of a negative response in order to shave off a few minutes buying milk.

    And in what social circle are female van drivers high status? If it were female Lexus SUV drivers, maybe. But vans? Not among any of the mothers I know.

  • rosensmith

    For “I don’t think it pertains to the tantrum tendency in Robin’s post,” please read “cheating” tendency. As in “right, I meant the other left.”

  • Paul Gowder

    I’m also a little curious about the claim that female van drivers are high status. But regardless, another way to see this story (assuming the status explanation is true) is as a story about inability to recognize the context-sensitivity of status. Status within van drivers (?!) or within female drivers (?!) doesn’t translate to a sort of status that police officers experience as affecting them. Consequently, female van drivers who run stop signs fail to optimize their risk of getting a ticket because they erroneously treat their context-a status as universal status. “Don’t you know who I am?!”