Long the subject of deep academic research and study, it looks like the mystery of the mean DMV worker has finally been solved.

The USC Marshall School of Business, with the help of Stanford University and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, have concluded that workers with some power but a lack of societal status will generally make your life a living hell if given the chance.

We had understood this phenomenon to be called, oh, human nature? According to a USC statement:

… Individuals in roles that possess power but lack status have a tendency to engage in activities that demean others.

Wow. It took three major schools to figure this out?

To be fair to DMV workers, who were actually pretty nice the last time we were there, the study, titled “The Destructive Nature of Power Without Status,” and due to be published soon in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, actually looked at students who did role-play games.

The interactive disposition of the DMV employee remains a subject of further inquiry. Meanwhile …

Some of the students were given power but low-status titles (such as “worker”). Others were told they were high-status “idea producers” but didn't have a lot of say.

The low-status kids tended to give “more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog three times) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles,” according to the study.

Sort of like life.

USC goes even further, saying soldiers …

… possessing power in the absence of status may have contributed to the acts committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.

USC assistant management Professor Nathanael Fast:

Put simply, it feels bad to be in a low-status position, and the power that goes with that role gives them a way to take action on those negative feelings.

Aw. Poor overpaid government employee with your oversize pensions. The researchers have the solution:

If an individual knows he or she may gain a higher-status role in the future or earn a bonus for treating others well, that may help ameliorate their negative feelings and behavior.

In other words, give them more meaningless titles. So next time you make it to the front of the line, be sure to address your favorite DMV worker as Assistant Vice Associate of Register My Car Pweeze.


LA Weekly