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Why Driving Makes Us Angry, Bitter and Fearful

08/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I love driving. But it's also a great source of ill will in society. I don't just mean driving is a stage where bad character is performed. It is an experience that inevitably creates bad emotions. If driving makes you angry, bitter or fearful, don't blame yourself (or those driving around you). In a different social environment your good side would be (and probably is) nourished and shared with others.

Driving may illustrate our inherent tendencies toward angry, bitter and fearful emotions -- but it is a society built around individual vehicle traffic that grows these inherent personal qualities into a social problem with destructive implications. As sociologist C. Wright Mills would say, we need to see that the traffic system makes personal troubles into public issues.

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Adding another lane won't help. (Photo by Philip Cohen)

Angry

Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational gives us experimental evidence that people are prone to choosing the most desirable option before them instead of making a better choice based on an abstract comparison. For example, if you offer people a tasty apple, a rotten apple and a tasty orange, people are inclined to take the tasty apple (at least more than if you just offered equally tasty apples and oranges).

Driving in traffic, we constantly face choices between lousy alternatives -- like switching lanes in a jam -- that leave us unsatisfied. Because we chose the bad option, this makes us angry, and people grow more angry when they drive in congested conditions. The better choice -- riding in a train, for example -- is an abstraction we might prefer if we saw it, we can't see it through the rage.

Bitter

Ariely also cites evidence that people tend to overvalue what they already have instead of what they might have. That's why people selling their crummy old cars ask too much for them -- they really believe they are worth more than an equally crummy car someone else has.

Driving in traffic, we covet our position and grow bitter whenever someone else appears to take it. It doesn't matter that, 9 times out of 10, the person cutting you off doesn't really make you any later. The point is that person is taking your spot. The bigger picture -- that you and that person are both rats running on traffic's wheel of futility -- is not foremost in your mind.

Fearful

The other day New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff argued that we are more afraid of snakes than we are of global warming -- even though the latter poses a greater overall risk -- because evolution taught us to prioritize immediate threats over long-term hazards. The adrenaline reaction trumps the cerebral one. This is one of the lessons in psychologist Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness.

The same applies directly to traffic situations, where the constant danger of accidents heightens our emotional responses to other drivers, and directs our anger and bitterness toward the individuals around us instead of toward the traffic-based society that boils us all down into the same mush.

These emotional reactions are to some extent unavoidable at the individual level. You can't help jumping when whatever you're most afraid starts crawling up your arm. But the genius of humanity is that we possess the collective brains to address our problems in ways that trump the individual gut. The collective will to act is not just the simple aggregation of individual rationality -- it's the product of interaction and deliberation that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

By putting ourselves in situations (such as trains and buses) that show us what we have in common, instead of what we have against each other, we develop our altruistic and empathetic selves. Taking mass transit, walking or biking -- and making the infrastructure decisions that encourage that behavior -- is good for our humanity. (Environmental conservation sold separately.)