Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
21. Beeping bosses:
fear, aggression and uncertainty
In the previous chapter we saw that people who feel powerful and inluential more readily fall
prey to double standards. Where else do power, inluence and prestige lead?
Imagine you are in the car on the way to an important appointment. It is essential that you
arrive on time; you absolutely must not be late. It’s going to be tight, but if the trafic lights
are on your side then it should work out. Just as you think that, the car in front of you brakes
suddenly because the trafic light jumps to red. It feels like forever, but eventually the trafic
light turns green again. Just when you want to get moving you see that the car in front is
staying still. You can’t get by. What you can do is beep your horn. That way you can draw the
driver’s attention to the fact that the light is green and that you are waiting. Perhaps his mind
is on other things or he cannot see the trafic light very well. It could also be that he is on the
phone or eating or is simply an idiot who can’t get moving.That’s all you need when you’re in a
hurry! With a long, hard push on the horn you can make it clear that you do not appreciate this.
Any idea what you would do?
Whether and how hard you beep depends on many factors: how much of a hurry you are in,
why you think the car is not moving, and how short your fuse is, for example. According to
Andreas Diekmann and colleagues this could also depend on your social status. They carried
out an experiment to test this.
One afternoon two researchers stopped a middle-class car at a trafic light on a busy junction.
When the light turned green they stayed still. The researchers then registered whether and
how soon the driver of the car blocked behind them beeped. The researchers took this as a
measure of aggression.
In all cases the car reacted: a quarter signaled with the headlights and three-quarters beeped.
The average reaction time was 4.2 seconds, but this varied from 1.4 to 17 seconds. This big
difference was not explained by the presence of fellow passengers, the age or color of the
blocked car, the gender of the driver or the day of the week. The reaction time was partially
21. Beeping bosses: fear, aggression and uncertainty