Why We Become Such Arseholes When We're Behind The Wheel

Why We Become Such Arseholes When We're Behind the Wheel

We all like to criticise the driving habits of others, but let's face it -- we're all guilty of doing some pretty stupid and selfish things on the road from time to time. Here's why it happens and what you need to do to keep your cool.

I hate being tailgated. One time, I surprised the hell out of myself when I initiated an exceptionally dangerous game of tit-for-tat with an offending tailgater that involved high speeds and some rather dangerous cutting-off maneuvers. After a few minutes of this nonsense, I snapped out of it and let the driver go. But the incident rattled me. That behaviour was so far removed from who I really am.

Why does driving turn so many of us into asshats? It's not just the rage aspect. We're constantly doing socially inappropriate things when we're inside our mobile bubbles. We cut in line, steal parking spots, fail to use our turn signals, and move ahead at a stop sign when it's not our turn. We engage in aggressive and risky maneuvers that put our lives -- and those around us -- at risk.

This happens in part because cars exist in a social netherworld somewhere between public and private space. "When we're in the car we often feel anonymous," said Erica Slotter, a social psychologist at Villanova University. "That feeling of anonymity can sometimes mean that we behave in ways that we wouldn't otherwise because we're less likely to be held accountable."

Why We Become Such Arseholes When We're Behind the Wheel

Anonymity and a loss of individuality causes us to lose some of our inner restraints and inhibitions. Via Stanford Prison Experiment (2014)

It's tied to a psychological effect known as "deindividuation." This idea was first explored in the early 1950s by Leon Festinger, a social psychologist working at MIT. In experiments, Festinger demonstrated that humans have a tendency to dissolve as individuals when they become part of a group. But they also have a tendency to deindividualize others when those others join another group. This diminishes our inner restraints and inhibitions, while making us less empathetic towards others.

Instead of seeing individuals, we simply see a type of car, or an endless stream of automobiles. This, in combination with perceived anonymity, gives us the sense that we won't be held accountable for our actions. It frees us from the guilt of our behaviours, and gives us the freedom to commit acts that violate our social and personal norms.

"When we feel anonymous, we lose focus of our moral compass and are more likely to behave badly." -- Erica Slotter

"When we feel anonymous, we lose focus of our moral compass and are more likely to behave badly," Slotter told Gizmodo. "We also perceive very little threat of retaliation in these circumstances, so there is little cost [to] us [for] behaving badly."

Driving exaggerates our in-group/out-group sensibilities. As social creatures, we love to slot things -- including people -- into groups. Groups that we belong to -- whether it be the people sitting in our car, a group of vehicles belonging to a certain type, or even cars stuck in a specific lane -- are referred to as the in-groups, and they tend to be preferred and favoured. Conversely, groups that we don't belong do, or don't want to belong to, are called out-groups, and they're often mistrusted. The chemicals within our brains are partly responsible for these urges. Oxytocin is wonderful in that it increases in-group trust, but it also produces the opposite feeling towards members of the out-group.

Why We Become Such Arseholes When We're Behind the Wheel

Via Lord of the Flies (1963).

A famous study by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought this phenomenon into focus back in the 1950s. In his Robbers Cave Experiment, Sherif recruited a dozen 12-year-old boys, and divided them equally and randomly into two segregated groups. After a short bonding period at a camp, they boys were told, unexpectedly, to prepare for a sports competition against the other group. Over time, the two groups became so hostile and aggressive towards one another that the researchers had to keep them physically separated.

Afterwards, the boys described their own group in favourable terms, but they had some very nasty things to say about the other. Sherif's experiment showed how quickly conflict can arise between groups even when the divisions separating them are arbitrary.

Competition between groups can trigger prejudices and discriminatory behaviour. In the context of driving, these in-group/out-group "contests" can be equated to times when we feel it's our turn to go at a 4-way stop, or we deserve access to an open spot during a lane change, and even the collective norms we hold about safe and courteous driving. We all too often put ourselves in a position of competition, rather than cooperation, while driving.

According to Slotter, Sherif and other researchers have had success creating different groups "even in experimental settings where no groups existed naturally." So, if we feel that all Prius models are part of our in-group because we drive a Prius, but all trucks are part of our out-group, "it's conceivable that we might experience greater anger or aggression toward truck drivers when on the highway," she said.

Driving is easily the most dangerous thing we do on a regular basis (in the U.S., around 34,000 people die each year in traffic accidents), so it's natural to feel threatened when an irresponsible driver seemingly puts our lives in danger. The problem is when anger turns into aggression -- an intentional behaviour designed to harm another person.

Statistics compiled by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that 66% of all traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving, and that males under the age of 19 are the most likely to exhibit road rage.

NHTSA data shows that the number of fatal accidents involving angry drivers has increased 10 times in the past 10 years. A Washington Post survey found that the percentage of drivers in the DC area who felt "uncontrollable anger toward another driver on the road" increased from 6% in 2010 to 12% in 2013. The reason for the increase may have to do with the fact that we're spending more time in our cars; commuting times are getting longer.

Why We Become Such Arseholes When We're Behind the Wheel

Via Washington Post/Wonkblog. Data courtesy NHTSA.

According to by Christine Wickens of the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the most common triggers include weaving/cutting (by far the most common complaint), speeding, hostile displays, tailgating, improper lane usage, no turn signal, and erratic braking.

A number of years ago, Colorado State University psychology professor Jerry Deffenbacher conducted an analysis of angry drivers. He found that drivers who are quick to anger:

  • Engage in hostile, aggressive thinking, and typically report more judgmental and disbelieving thoughts about other drivers
  • Take more risks on the road, and often speed, rapidly switch lanes, tailgate, and enter an intersection when the light turns red
  • Get angry faster and behave more aggressively, and frequently engage in swearing, name-calling, yelling at drivers, and honking in anger
  • Have twice as many accidents, along with more more near-accidents and speeding tickets

As Deffenbacher explained, anger is not a chronic experience for high-anger drivers, but "something prompted by different triggers or events on the road," provocations that are "frustrating and provoking in some way -- and then what they bring to the wheel [that determines] how angry they will get."

At the same time, the realisation that other drivers experience feelings of immunity only adds to our frustration; it riles us to know that an offending driver will "get away with it." And considering how many of us are stressed or running late when we're driving, it's easy to see how even minor situations can quickly spiral out of control.

"When we get into states like that, it is harder for us to control our gut impulses to, say, lash out at another driver," said Slotter.

Self-control is a limited resource, and driving most certainly taxes our ability to exercise restraint. Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister has likened self-control to the gas that fuels our cars. We use it to control our thoughts, impulses, and feelings, but there's only so much of it to go around before we use it all up.

When our willpower expires, we experience "decision fatigue," a degraded state of mind that can lead to diminished self-control. Slotter says that decision fatigue makes us less likely to override gut impulses that lead us towards aggressive behaviours. This may explain why we're more gracious to our fellow drivers during our morning commute, but less forgiving on the way home.

Julia Galef, the president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, agrees that our "higher order" thinking is often compromised when we're behind the wheel.

Why We Become Such Arseholes When We're Behind the Wheel

A failure of "higher order" thinking. Via Fast and Furious 6.

"A big part of rational decision-making is the ability to perform an 'executive override' -- to check our initial gut reaction, and say to ourselves, 'Wait a minute, is this right?'" she said. "That override function is performed by our prefrontal cortex and is sometimes called 'System 2' thinking, in contrast to our gut 'System 1' thinking."

Galef is referring to the work of John Bargh, a social psychologist from Yale who divided cognitive processes into two broad types. We use System 1 thinking for general things like awareness, efficiency, and controllability. But when we engage in System 2 thinking, we're being more rational, and we tap into the logical parts of our brain. Unfortunately, System 2 thinking is more cognitively demanding. It's slow and methodical. So, when we're frustrated or annoyed, it's easier to just fall back on our more primitive urges. Applying a rule-based, rational approach to challenging situations -- a cognitive trait that only recently evolved in humans -- requires more energy, time, and concentration. Performing an "executive override" is often easier said than done.

"Engaging that override takes some effort, and the situations in which we're least able to do it are those in which we're very distracted or emotionally stressed out," Galef told Gizmodo. "Driving fits the bill -- we are trying to pay attention to a lot of things at once, watching the road, checking our mirrors, monitoring our speed, thinking about whether we'll make it on time. And if we're also stressed out -- about running late, or about getting cut off by another driver -- it becomes increasingly hard to engage that override function."

But that's not to suggest it can't be done. When we find ourselves in a calm and focused state, it's helpful to acknowledge that "we aren't really always stuck in the slowest lane, and that it really isn't a big deal to get to the store ten minutes later than we had expected, and that it isn't really useful to curse at that other driver," said Galef

We can also engage in "implementation intention" -- the practice of taking our intentions and translating them into "if-then" statements. We can use these pre-packaged statements to plan for scenarios that are likely to tax our self-control. For example: "If I'm being tailgated, then I'll just change lanes and let the driver go past," or, "If I want to start getting fewer speeding tickets, then I have to respect the speed limit." This form of goal-setting is surprisingly effective.

There are other things we can do to reduce negative feelings and strengthen our willpower.

Griffith University psychologist Megan Oaten has shown (pdf) that we can build up our self-control and get better at it over time if we practice self-discipline in small doses. Self-control improves when we use our non-dominant hand as often as we can for about two weeks, for example, or use proper English (no slang, bad grammar, or abbreviations) for an extended period.

Psychologist Mark Muraven discovered that people with depleted willpower will still perform well on self-control tasks after being told their efforts would benefit others. So we can strengthen our will-power when we're behind the wheel by reminding ourselves that, by being calm and courteous, we're not putting ourselves or our passengers at risk. The payoff is that we get to arrive alive.

Many of us feel annoyed when we have to stop as an amber light turns to red. In these moments, we need to remind ourselves that it's not productive to get upset or frustrated by something so clearly beyond our control. We also need to think about the actual amount of time we feel we're losing or wasting, whether it be the time we spend at a red light, or the time lost to a slow motorist in front of us. In the grander scheme of things, we're actually losing a small fraction of time. It may only be a minute or two -- and many of us waste far more time during the day, mindlessly browsing through our Facebook newsfeeds or sitting through long commercial breaks on TV.

Failing these tips, Slotter recommends consulting a mental health professional for those who still struggle with angry outbursts or impulse control. If you can't control yourself, particularly when you're behind the wheel, you need to do yourself and everyone else around you a favour and get professional help.

Sources: American Psychological Association, American Safety Council, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington Post, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Top illustration: Sam Woolley



    I watched a car driver nearly hit someone on a crossing because they werent watching the road, then he hurled abuse the pedestrian he nearly hit that wasnt in the wrong... then did an illegal uturn 50 metres up the road, park his car and while looking in his phone stepped right into traffic 10 metres away from said crossing... and got hit by a bus. While people came to help him... An off duty ambulance guy rushed up doing great saving his life, but i started laughing my ass off. The police arrived quickly (end of the block) and the crowd points to me giggling at the suffering man... police told me that wasnt appropriate so i gave the police a full statement of the drivers actions. "The man who is saving his life is the person he nearly ran over minute before, no finer example of both karma and human selflessness and self absorbption in one moment".

    So driving is like the comments section of the internet?

    Best way to avoid road rage is to be introspective against being slighted. If someone aggressivly changes lanes or tailgates just let them go and have a laugh when your next to them at the next traffic light. Its definately worth 5 minutes of my time letting crazy drivers get ahead of me so that I dont have to deal with anger/repairs/insurance.

      So driving is like the comments section of the internet?
      Lol, yeah, I was thinking the same thing.

    I found that my road rage increase with how expensive the car I would be driving at the time is.
    Too many retards that lack common sense driving cars they don't care about.

      too many uneducated people use words they shouldn't when wielding keyboards too

      Too many people overly concerned about their precious cars, which they can't afford to insure because their payments are too high. (Same for a bogan with a VN as for a Yup with a Ferrari).

      Me reaction to tail gaters is: "They will be at-fault", my insurance company will fix the damage, and get the costs from them some way, IF they don't stop, the in-car camera will have their numberplate and the police will be interested to hear about it...

      My reaction to erratic drivers, is sometimes a little more exasperated.

        Depending on the type of car you are buying, dealerships normally won't let you obtain the car without proof of full comprehensive insurance.

        Even though my car/s are all insured (full comprehensive) with dashcams and all, I still don't won't to be involved in a traffic accident, depending on how hard your car is hit, it will never be the same - stress the chassis prematurely etc.... Late last year I was rear ended by two uninsured drivers, both who happened to be driving uninsured rust boxes. Was their fault.

        It took 3 months since my rear end had a carbon fibre diffuser, the repairer ended up getting me to research and source (reimbursement) the part as it was too hard for them to find in Aus

        My exhausts on the right side of the car are now slightly lower than the other 2 on the left side.
        As a result of the force my front bumper is now slightly slagging , even though I know it was caused from the accident, the repairer/insurer said it was not.

        Even though everything was "resolved" it's still a big inconvenience for me and for my car.

        I'm not an aggressive driver, I consider myself a smart one. I just get pissed off when the gap that I have left in front me is suddenly taken up by some clueless retard trying to take an opportunity in traffic, that gap is for me to brake in case traffic in front of randomly comes to a stop.

        TL:DR yes, insurance is all cool, but it's still inconvenient for everyone involved.

        Last edited 15/01/16 4:28 pm

          Never nice when it happens, minding own business etc, and someone hits you (most of the time they feel pretty foolish too).

          Pretty sure it is the lender who requires insurance not the dealer. (The dealer isn't the lender usually, though they may employ the sales person/provide the service.)

          2 in one year, that's a special kind of unlucky, I feel sorry for you to have that aggravation.

          Last edited 16/01/16 9:40 am

    I think the people that become arseholes behind the wheel are arseholes generally.

      Agreed. They are exactly the type of people who behave badly in most situations - poor impulse control, terrible judgement and a quick temper.

    People are fundamentally selfish. They want the perfect drive. To go from point A to point B without encountering another vehicle or red light. Unfortunately, when everyone wants the same thing, it's bound to fail. If people were more concerned about getting from A to B safely and letting others do the same, there would be no road rage. Having been a victim of road rage, I'm a lot more cautious these days.

    "We cut in line, steal parking spots, fail to use our turn signals, and move ahead at a stop sign when it’s not our turn." Actually, I never do any of those things, apart from the first, and I only do that because it shits me to tears that other morons allow other arseholes to cut in, even when they are clearly just being arseholes. And, as you might have guessed, I am an extremely aggressive driver. You can be incredibly aggressive without having to resort to treating other road users like garbage, at least until they show you that they deserve it.

    I'd also point out that I have been driving aggressively for 40 years and never had a serious accident (and never one where I was the at fault driver). Stats are just generalisations, doing precisely what these researchers are telling us we do on the road - deindividualising us by placing us in groups.

      I prefer the term 'decisive driver' over aggressive driver. I don't hesitate to take advantage of other peoples' indecision and incompetence. Good driving only comes with experience and the sort of wisdom which comes with age. Plus the knowledge that every single time I get behind the wheel of a car, I could kill someone or be killed myself. 100% attention to the task at hand has prevented me from ever being in an accident (at fault or not) in 39 years of driving.

      It annoys me too when someone things that there's something charitable about 'letting in' every driver on the road. It just encourages them to push in front of a line of cars. The problem with cutting in is that you're failing to give way by cutting a vehicles stopping distance - and you'll be liable if they collide with you before they can increase their stopping distance.

    Three cheers for all the aussie bogans vooming along in their over powered utes etc. There are so many of them on the road. Grunting, sweating, hairy, ugly bogans. Beauty mate! Live long and prosper

    Last edited 16/01/16 12:52 pm

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