Have you ever shouted obscenities at a passing driver for the smallest thing but felt completely justified? Are you usually mild-mannered but find that behind the wheel of a car you’re a totally different person? You’re probably prone to road rage. But what causes it and why do normal people react in this aggressive way?

I’m not afraid of confrontation. I’m also opinionated and tend to think I’m always right. It won’t surprise you to learn then that I’ve succumbed to the odd burst of road rage. However, let me introduce you to my sister. She is the sweetest, kindest, most caring, giving person you’ll ever meet in your life, but get her into a car and she turns into a demon. In real life, she never swears. Behind a steering wheel, however, she uses language even I’m embarrassed to hear.

It’s watching a vicar turn to the dark side. So what’s happening? Why does my patient sister switch into the driver from hell? Let’s look at studies and examine the psychology of road rage.

Studies on Road Rage

It’s all about social niceties

We all abide by life’s unspoken rules. These are the social niceties, the rules of social etiquette that provide structure and boundaries. So what things am I talking about?

  • Remembering our Ps and Qs.
  • We don’t jump the queue.
  • Removing sunglasses and earphones when talking to people.
  • We keep our voices down when we’re talking on our mobile phones.
  • Holding the door open for other people.
  • Stopping at zebra crossings.
  • We don’t push past people.

The thing is, say we do one of the above? Say I pushed past you in the street, but it was an accident. My immediate response would be to apologise. And nine times out of ten, that would be that. Your initial anger would dissipate because I’ve said sorry. Balance is restored. So why is it different when we are driving?

Disproportionate response

When we surround ourselves in our bubbles of metal and glass, we lose these little niceties. For a start, we will all make these little mistakes, these little social faux pas when we are driving.

The difference is because we are in a car, it is much harder to make our apology seen to the other driver. We haven’t restored the balance. The other driver feels furious. This social slight takes on a life of its own, all because we don’t have the opportunity to redeem ourselves.

Professor Boaz Keysar is looking into the inappropriate response from drivers to small infractions on the road. He believes that it is this discourteous behaviour that leads to the mental bias of road rage.

“For instance in driving, if you are kind and let someone go in front of you, that driver may be considerate in response. But if you cut someone off, that person may react very aggressively, and this could escalate to road rage.” Keysar

Road rage is triggered by one specific event

Research suggests that road rage is triggered by one event. Typically, this will involve one driver doing something that inadvertently winds another one up. Examples including cutting drivers off, driving too slowly or too fast, changing lanes without indicating or driving when it is not their right of way and not acknowledging the other driver.

However, it is the response of the other driver that is key to what happens next. Some drivers will just shrug off the potentially triggering event. They’ll call out the behaviour and carry on with their journey. But others will be incensed with fury. So why do the actions of some events trigger an aggressive response in some drivers but not others?

How you view the actions of the other driver is key to your reaction

There are several different ways of viewing what our fellow drivers are doing. In our everyday lives, we tend to categorise people, events, experiences and ourselves into certain groups.

For example:

People: Age – Old fogey or young road hog, Gender – typical arrogant male or hesitant female

Environment stressors: Traffic jams, roadworks, hot or cold weather, time pressures

Our interpretations: Generalising – ‘Everyone is an idiot’, Catastrophising – ‘I could have been killed!’ Personalising – ‘He cut me off because I’m a woman.’ Standard violations – ‘People need to learn to drive.’

Other factors: We feel protected in our cars and have a certain degree of anonymity. It is also hard for us to communicate.

Who is prone to road rage?

So, we know what happens, and why it happens, but who is more likely to succumb to road rage? Well, surprisingly, drivers who are more confident and feel like they are in control tend to behave in a more aggressive manner on the road. Not only that, but this sense of control is an illusion. This is because as our anger rises, so our cognitive abilities start to fall.

How can we stop road rage in ourselves?

  1. Firstly, the most common fallacy when it comes to those who are prone to anger on the roads is that they are the better drivers. Apparently, 80% of all drivers believe their driving skills are well above average. This is not feasible.
  2. Secondly, remember that we all make mistakes and it is harder to say sorry when you are wrapped up in a car. Allow people to mess up.
  3. Thirdly, no one is out to get you personally. Drivers are not malicious or intent on making your journey worse.
  4. Finally, breathe and accept that the only thing you can control is your own driving. Focus on that and let go of everything else.

Knowing the psychology of road rage can help us understand why people turn aggressive when they are driving. Hopefully, this knowledge will help all of us get to our destinations relatively unscathed.

References:

  1. www.sciencedirect.com
  2. www.tandfonline.com

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