What looking inside a road rager's brain can teach us about humanity.



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So you’re driving along, sipping on a chai tea latte and listening to the dulcet tones of Ira Glass.

Or maybe your jam is the BBC or Prairie Home Companion or that new favorite whale song/world music/Buddhist chant remix. But whatever you’re listening to, you’re driving along all easy-peasy.

And then, around a corner, you encounter … them.

The literal incarnation of evil.

The one person who can shatter your nebula of car calm and awaken the elemental fury within you: a person going three miles an hour under the speed limit.

And they’re in front of you in a nonpassing zone.

GIF from Disney’s “Hercules.”

A lot of us get road rage sometimes. Like, pretty much everybody.

According to AAA (you know, the folks who’ll come and get you if your car breaks down), nearly 80% of drivers were significantly angry behind the wheel at least once in the last year. About half tailgated or yelled at other drivers and about a quarter admitted to purposefully trying to block another car from changing lanes.

Haven’t you ever heard of zipper merging?! Photo from iStock.

Road rage isn’t just an American problem, either — it’s been seen pretty much everywhere cars are used.

So what snaps in our brains when we throw up a middle finger or honk aggressively or scream at someone we don’t even know?

If we can figure out why our brains freak out behind the wheel, maybe we can fight back and stay calm.

There isn’t a simple answer, but scientists and researchers have a few ideas about what contributes to that road-fueled rage you feel burning inside you. Those road rage factors reveal a few interesting quirks in human psychology, too — quirks that, once we know about them, we can possibly turn around.

Road rage reason number one: Cars don’t have faces. And that matters more than you’d think.

No matter what nickname you give to your car (Ol’ Jeepy Joe), no matter what funny bumper stickers you add, no matter how many weird fake eyelashes you attach…

Car eyelashes. Car. Eyelashes. Photo from Hazel Nicholson/Flickr.

… a car just isn’t the same as a living breathing human being. And our brains just don’t know how to handle that.

Eye contact is one of the most important ways people learn to empathize with each other. But, really, when was the last time you were able to make eye contact with someone on the road? If you’re lucky, you might get a half-second glance over while you’re passing them (after all, you’re supposed to keep your eyes on the road, not ogling other drivers).

For the most part, driving anonymizes us. And that makes us jerks.

Studies have found that being anonymous not only makes us more aggressive drivers, it makes us more likely to bully people online, and even cheat at video games.

OK, so we just have to paint giant faces on all our cars, right? And then we can go back to sipping on chai and listening to public radio?

Well, we’re not done, ’cause our brains love to jump to conclusions too.

We’ve got left and right turn signals down (theoretically … kind of … not really), but what’s the signal for “I’ve got a screaming infant in the backseat” or “I’ve been at work for 18 hours pulling shifts at emergency care” or “my dog literally just threw up in my lap”?

‘Cause there’s no way to tell people on the highway that. No way to explain our mistakes or why we’re suddenly distracted. And this might lead to something psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.”

Yeah, you look real happy now, bub, but just wait until she starts crying, pooping, and throwing up all at the same time at 60 miles an hour. Then we’ll see if you’re so dang chipper. Photo from iStock.

Basically, when we do something bad ourselves, we explain it away as a reaction to the situation. But our brains aren’t wired that way for the actions of other people. Instead, we blame whatever that person is doing on who they are, not the situation.

I mean, obviously, when I speed it’s because I drank a 64-ounce Big Gulp and need to find a bathroom, like, 10 minutes ago, but when they speed it’s because they’re a horrible speed-demon with poor impulse control!

What’s worse, we all tend to think we’re above-average drivers too, which means we tend to assign blame to everyone but ourselves.

And those quirks combined might make it a lot easier to blow our lid. Nobody wants to yell at the exhausted doctor or mom, but we almost never get to see the real person behind the wheel until it’s too late, so our brains are only too happy to jump to conclusions.

OK, one more road rage factor: Maybe it’s that we really, really hate losing. And traffic feels like losing.

Our brains are wired with a concept known as loss aversion. Basically, we’re predisposed to hate losing, even more than we love winning. And traffic feels like losing.

For one thing, heavy traffic can mean it takes longer for us to get to our destination, which makes us feel like we’re losing time.

Truly, this is the winter of our discontent. Photo from iStock.

And for another, the traffic in and of itself can be a problem. In Tom Vanderbilt’s book “Traffic,” Richard Larson, an engineer and design expert at MIT, points out that seeing people get ahead of us in queues or lanes tends to irritate us, even if our rivals are in a completely separate lane!

I know that, for me, there’s always a microsecond of annoyance when people pass me on the highway — even if they’re in a completely different lane. Seeing someone get ahead of us feels unfair. It feels like they’re cutting in line.

And when it’s in standstill traffic, and I see the next lane start to move, but not mine…

Add to this that driving can be inherently dangerous and stressful for many people, and is it really a surprise we blow up?

Road rage might seem funny because how it comes about or maybe even a little silly, getting upset at stuff on the highway. But it’s no big deal, right? Driving gives our brains every reason to get mad and no reason to stop.

The thing is, though, road rage isn’t really funny.

In those same estimates from AAA that identified 80% of drivers experienced anger or road rage, they also estimated that 8 million drivers engaged in “extreme examples of road rage, including purposefully ramming another vehicle.”

In fact, one study found that aggressive driving was a factor in more than half of fatal accidents from 2003 to 2007. So we should probably do some work to stop road rage while we’re ahead.

Now that we know why our brains act this way, maybe we can do something about it.

It’s OK to feel your hackles raise at being stuck behind a slow driver or to feel stressed out in the car. It’s OK to want to avoid bad drivers or be scared or angry if someone comes out of nowhere into your lane. And it’s obviously OK to have a bad day — we can’t always control how our brains process the information around us.

But we do have some degree of control over our own actions in the car. Muting your road rage could be as simple as trying to empathize with a new mom driver who’s baby is screaming, even if you can’t see her face. Or maybe it’s trying to give that Prius the benefit of the doubt when it makes a mistake in your lane because you never know what kind of day that driver’s had. Or maybe it’s just remembering that driving isn’t a race and a few extra minutes in traffic probably won’t kill you.

Maybe — if we stay mindful about the tricks driving can play on our brains and cut each other a little bit of slack — we can all stay calm and safe on the roadway.

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