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.”

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.

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.

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.

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