The Psychology of Road Rage: How Cars Transform Others Into Obstacles

What is it about being behind the wheel that can transform the most genial soccer mom into a seething mass of rage?

We can peek inside the head of an aggressive driver thanks to some timeless research from psychologist Leon James. In the late 1990s, James analyzed thousands of messages between drivers posted on internet discussion groups. He found that good-natured people often became intolerant and anti-social the moment they pull into traffic. Congressional testimony given by James, posted on Network blog Baltimore Spokes, explains the psychology of road rage and how automobiles serve to depersonalize others.

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.

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.”

This research is no longer cutting edge (James gave the testimony in 1997), but has it been absorbed and applied? How many first-time drivers hit the road prepared to deal with the psychology of road rage?

Also on the Network today: Transbay Blogger marks the introduction of the Bay Area’s first high occupancy toll lane, which will charge SOVs to use HOV lanes. And Greater Greater Washington celebrates the launch of metro DC’s new bikesharing program.