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Foto: Daniël Rommens

Replication of research: rich people not at all more antisocial in traffic

Jazz Stofberg,
6 maart 2023 - 16:56

Rich people, contrary to previous research, are not more antisocial in traffic. That is what Paul Smeets, UvA professor of Sustainable Finance, showed in a replication study in Maastricht, Aachen, Rotterdam and Berkeley - where the original experiment was conducted. “Most rich people don’t behave better or worse.”

“The 2012 study that showed the rich exhibited more antisocial behavior in traffic received a lot of attention”, professor Paul Smeets explains on the phone. “It confirmed a stereotype that rich people are stingy or unkind. People like to read that, partly to make themselves feel better. When I read that research, I had some questions about it. We ended up repeating the original experiment in several places but did not get the same result.”
Smeets enthusiastically explains why he did this research. “As a Sustainable Finance professor, why on earth did I do this research?” he asks with a laugh. “From my line of research into philanthropy, among other things, I am interested in what motivates people to use their money for something good. Rich people naturally play an important role in that, so this is actually an extension of my research.”
Smeets replicated the 2012 study which showed that people in expensive cars behave more antisocially in Maastricht, Aachen, Rotterdam, and Berkeley. To see if rich people really are more antisocial in traffic, Smeets conducted the same two experiments as in 2012: seeing if a pedestrian is given the right of way from a car at a pedestrian crossing and seeing how often one car cuts off another one. “In the end, we found no difference anywhere between cheaper and more expensive cars.”

Foto: Wim Smeets
Paul Smeets

Red flags
Smeets finds it strange that people immediately took the results of the study for granted. “It’s actually quite bad that there was little critical dissent at the time of publication”, Smeets says. “After all, there were some striking things about the study. The researchers found significant differences everywhere with particularly small samples. That’s quite remarkable.” Because these samples were so small, the likelihood that the significant results found reflected reality was low.
The small samples were not the only red flags, according to Smeets. “The dataset was not public, and when we asked for information about how their study was conducted, they didn’t have it. They e-mailed us that they had lost it.” In the absence of data, Smeets and his colleagues then devised their own plan to replicate the experiment as precisely as possible. They then sent that to the original authors. “They had no more comments, so then we went ahead and sent the article to the publisher.”


Unprofessional and immature
Publishing the article was not without controversy. “One of the peer reviewers of our article was an author of the 2012 publication. He claimed our methodology was flawed and that we had not consulted them. Fortunately, since we had kept our e-mails, we were able to prove that we had. I get that it's not nice when your work appears to be wrong after replication, but you expect someone to deal with that maturely. This behavior towards us was just unprofessional.”


The purpose of the study, according to Smeets, was not to refute the other research. “If we had found a different result, that would have been interesting, too. For example, if people were more antisocial in California but not in Aachen. That could have inspired whole new studies on location or cultural differences. I think it is very important to determine to what extent research can be generalized using replication studies, among other things. What you find in one country does not necessarily apply everywhere. In fact, you can never rely on one study and draw overarching conclusions.”

It’s the worst press I’ve ever gotten for a publication

The fact that rich people are not more antisocial in traffic ties in with previous international research. “Most rich people, according to research, behave neither better nor worse than the average person. In most countries, they donate a larger percentage of their income – but not in the Netherlands. Rich people, of course, also have more financial freedom to donate.”
Bad for your career
“It’s the worst press I’ve ever gotten for a publication. I think a lot of media are also not eager to admit that they wrote something ten years ago that has turned out not to be true. In the end, pieces that don’t show a difference always do less well. They tend to be less juicy stories anyway.”
Smeets emphasizes that replication research such as this does little for your career. “Personally, it does you more harm than good. As a researcher, you will still meet people who think something about it, for example, in peer reviews of your publications.” For science, though, replication research is important. “I think too little replication research is done. Fortunately, I am certainly not the only researcher doing it. For instance, a while back there was a major replication research article published in the journal Nature. Above all, I want to show people what good science is and encourage them to do the same.”

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