Dr. Leon James
Professor of Psychology
University of Hawaii
Road Rage: A Culturally Acquired Habit
Driving and habitual road rage have become virtually inseparable. Why? What causes aggressive driving and habitual road rage? And everybody points to the same factors: more cars--->more traffic--->more frustration--->more stress--->more anger--->more hostility--->more violence. More cars leads to more aggression on the roads, sort of like rats fighting in a crowded colony.
Given this logic the standard solutions are: more and better roads, better cars, better laws, better enforcement, and better public education campaigns. Even individual and group therapy. All of these approaches have been helpful, but in my opinion, they are not sufficient to contain and eliminate the epidemic of road rage.
The culture of road rage has deep roots. We inherit aggressive and dangerous driving patterns as children, watching our parents and other adults behind the wheel, and by watching and absorbing bad driving behaviors depicted in movies and television commercials.
I was astounded the first time I listened to drivers who had tape recorded their thoughts and feelings in traffic, speaking their thoughts aloud while driving, giving a sort of play-by-play of what it's like inside the private world of the driver. This was the first time in the history of psychology that self-witnessing data became available through hundreds of drivers speaking and recording their thoughts in traffic. One feature that particularly amazed me was the pervasive negativity of their thoughts and feelings. In a kind of Jekyll and Hyde effect perfectly ordinary, friendly, good-hearted people tend to become extremely intolerant and anti-social as soon as they get behind the wheel. Behind the wheel their personality undergoes a rapid transformation, from polite and tolerant to inconsiderate, intolerant and emotionally unintelligent.
As a result of my studies, I've concluded that aggressive drivers need other behavioral modification techniques to manage their competitive impulses on the road. I refer to this set of emotional management techniques as "inner power tools" for smart driving.
It took several years of research for me to understand the psychological mechanism of emotionally impaired driving. The car is not only an object of convenience, beauty, and status. It is also a cultural and psychological object, associated with the driver's internal mental and emotional dynamics, our ego. Cars are an extension of the self, they are ego-laden objects that can be used both positively and negatively to get our own way on the road. The automobile offers us a means to exercise direct control over our environment. When we enter the car we use it as an outlet for regaining a sense of control. Automobiles are powerful, and obedient. They respond instantly and gratifyingly to our command, giving us a sense of well being that comes with achieving control over one's environment.
The pace of life has increased for the majority of the population. Many have commented on the general feeling of loss of control in their lives. And yet it is human and natural to seek a sense of control in our lives, we want to feel we're getting somewhere, that we're not wasting time, that we're doing the right and just thing, that we're free to pursue our own interest- unfettered.
What happens when someone thwarts our sense of freedom? For example, while driving along in a pack of vehicles, a car in the left lane suddenly darts into your lane just ahead of you. Your foot automatically lifts from the gas pedal and taps the brakes, just enough to maintain distance. At this point, aggressive drivers feel thwarted because they were forced to alter what they were doing. That driver forced you to lift your foot two inches. "What a moron. What an idiot." You feel an explosion of fury inside. It gets very hot. You might even begin to perspire. You grip the wheel harder. Now you've arrived at the decisive moment: you can let the emotion die out, or you can fan the flames with thoughts of indignation and retaliation. Aggressive drivers do not let the momentary emotional flare die down.
I discovered that many drivers I've worked with haven't learned the emotional skills they need to handle such routine emergency situations. The violation of their sense of personal freedom instantly arouses negative emotions that escalate in sequence from frustration to hostility to hatred. The fact is that aggressive driving is a cultural norm because our culture condones the expression of hostility whenever we feel wronged.