Urban Velo

Road Rage Psychology

rageI’ve always felt the argument that one rule-breaking cyclist (“You ran a red light?! Now we’re all gonna die!!”) is what compels drivers to hate all our collective guts, is very weak. Human nature is far more complex and subconscious than this, as is argued by BBC writer, Tom Stafford, as he pulls from evolutionary theory and social psychology to give a more thorough explanation of this road rage phenomenon. He explains,

…It’s not because cyclists are annoying. It isn’t even because we have a selective memory for that one stand-out annoying cyclist over the hundreds of boring, non-annoying ones (although that probably is a factor). No, my theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they think they offend the moral order…

… Humans seem to have evolved one way of enforcing order onto potentially chaotic social arrangements. This is known as “altruistic punishment”, a term used by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter in a landmark paper published in 2002. An altruistic punishment is a punishment that costs you as an individual, but doesn’t bring any direct benefit. As an example, imagine I’m at a football match and I see someone climb in without buying a ticket. I could sit and enjoy the game (at no cost to myself), or I could try to find security to have the guy thrown out (at the cost of missing some of the game). That would be altruistic punishment.

I don’t think there is much of a cooperative answer to this problem of cyclists avoiding generally accepted traffic laws, in part as a way of protecting ourselves, but maybe this theory can help you shrug off the haters as you circumvent the moral social order next time the light turns red on you.

Via BBC Future

About Scott Spitz

Commuting, touring, kid hauling, couriering, mechanic work, sales, advocacy, fixed, free—Scott has had his hands in it all over the years.

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  1. Link roundup: November 20 | Bicycle TucsonNovember 20, 2014 at 8:43 am

    [...] Road Rage Psychology [...]

  2. Scott NNovember 21, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Most people I have spoken to on this issue (usually in a calm manner) see cyclists more as an obstacle. We are “holding them back” from getting where they need to go since we are, on average, slower than a car. The big issue I find is the fact that drivers usually don’t factor how little time we cost then (less than 2 minutes I would assume in most cases) and don’t factor in what they are in a rush for. People will complain about cyclists holding the back from getting home. When I respond “what were you rushing to get home to?” They don’t have a good answer, usually just dinner and their couch. Perspective is a hell of a thing, and when people realize they rushing to get places for no good reason it usually helps calm them down. (My personal experience, mostly coworkers in a downtown environment)

  3. pfinnNovember 21, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    @Scott N – it’s even less time than 2 mins! Count it out next time you’re in a jam whether on bike or in a car… You probably won’t count past ten before you’re moving again. To the authors point the “altruistic punishment” comes in the form of venting for the following prolonged period of time. You’ve been deprived of 10 seconds but you’re fuming for much longer. You’re spot on – it’s the perspective.

  4. TerryNovember 21, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Offend the moral order? Oh good grief. Bike riders aren’t morally superior to anyone, just like car drivers aren’t morally superior to anyone. We are all people–just using a different mode of transportation.

    There is a cycling club near me that acts like jackasses when they are on the road–riding 3 side by side refusing to move over, ripping through stop signs, pulling out in front of people.

    I despise those clowns and I am a bicyclist. Many people look down on bikers because they act like jerks.

    Perhaps when cyclist quit thinking they are somehow morally different than anyone else and quit trying to divide themselves into a special little group of us vs. the world, then everyone will be better off.

  5. Matthew JNovember 22, 2014 at 7:06 am

    Club riders may be a problem at times but a very small one.

    Fact is, there are not that many clubs or club rides. Too few cars encounter club rides to come anywhere near explaining the animosity so many of them have to cyclists.

    Sure, some cyclists act like jerks. But so to do infinitely more drivers. And jerky drivers wreak far greater havoc on society than jerky cyclists ever will.

    Nonetheless, it is cyclists as a group who are despised, whereas motorists single out the individual bad drivers as somehow different from the rest.

    Suggest you re-read the article keeping in mind the author’s using the word moral in the grade school religion class sense.

  6. Scott NNovember 25, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    @pfinn – I agree it’s almost always way less time that is taken from the driver’s day. I put two minutes because the one person mentioned being behind a cyclist across a bridge which caused them to miss the green-light at the end. My estimate was longer than the usual, just to cover the spread. Funny enough, people who drive (regardless of whether they like cyclists or not) seem to be amazed that I would commute 10 miles round trip to work by bike and usually seem to admire it. Cyclists all realize that 5 miles each way is actually a comfortable/ convenient distance, but it seems like a marathon to people who don’t ride.

  7. PacelinahApril 22, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    Some folks use defused responsibility and say “it’s not in my job description” and look the other way. Some self-righteous folks will automatically take the law (as they interpret it) into their own hands and do something vengeful like buzz a cyclist even though that shared lane is very wide or multiple lanes with no other traffic nearby.

    Share the Lane? No, now it’s Sharing the Lane

  8. Roy WilkieNovember 19, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    I mostly run red lights to put some distance between myself and the motor vehicles, but I don’t do it in spite of anyone else’s right of way – I don’t pull out in front of people.

    If you notice, everywhere that bike traffic lights are, they operate on a staggered cycle from the main lights. That’s all I’m doing, just without the lights they haven’t built for us yet.

    ‘Treating stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs’ is my policy, a pretty common one, and only serves to get us out of driver’s ways faster. There’s nothing wrong with it. No victim, no crime.

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