In 2009, an estimated 56% of fatal car accidents involved aggressive driving. (Goodwin et al., 2015, p.158). Numerous psychological studies have been performed in order to determine the causes of road rage. We will be looking at road rage from several different schools of thought: social-cognitive, behavioral, and psychoanalytic.
Using the social cognitive theory we will look at how gender, anonymity, fundamental attribution error, reciprocity, and hostile cognitive biases impact driving. The perspective of social-cognitive theory, looks at how people interpret and perceive social situations. Gender roles and stereotypes influence these perceptions on how men and women are expected to act. Since gender roles, ‘are well-established social constructions” they affect how we view and interact with other people on a daily basis (Brown & Jewell, 2018). One of those interactions involves driving. Typically, men are generalized as more aggressive and more competitive than women. In Dana Yagil’s (2001, pg 128) experiment it was found ‘that women’s driving behavior was interpreted as more innocent than that of a man.” Hennessy and Weisenthal also found men were more likely to take part in more violent measures, such as’verbal confrontation, physical confrontations, chasing other vehicles, drive by shootings, throwing objects, purposeful contact, and vandalizing vehicles.” Hennessy and Weisenthal (2001, p.671) explain that this could be due ‘to women are more restrained in situations representing personal risk or danger.” Therefore, women are more likely to ‘avoid violent actions” because of a greater potential for personal injury (Hennessy & Weisenthal, 2001, p. 671).
However, Hennessy and Weisenthal (2001, p.664) also found that there is an equal prevalence of milder aggression in both genders. Meaning females and males were both likely to take part in actions such as, ‘swearing, yelling, honking out of frustration, purposeful tailgating, flashing high beams, and hand gestures”. This could be due to feelings of anonymity and deindividuation while driving.
Deindividuation increases the likelihood of aggression occurring because people feel unidentifiable and less responsible for their actions (Dula et al. 2011, p.327). Regardless of gender, certain conditions such as being in an emotionally charged crowd, promotes a decreased sense of self awareness and self restraint. These feelings of deindividuation can be mimicked in traffic jams because drivers feel as if they are in a crowd. The stress of being in traffic heightens arousal and being hidden behind tinted windows intensifies the feelings of anonymity (Dula et al., 2011, p.327). Additionally, the consequences of aggressive behavior are minimized when there is a sense of deindividuation, giving a sense of control over others while driving.
Fundamental attribution error, is when people disregard the situation and immediately characterize a person’s actions as their personality (Biswas-Diener, 2018). When someone is driving recklessly, observers will quickly apply a negative judgment. Regardless of knowing anything about the driver’s actual character, beliefs, or intentions. Many people will then blame the offender for a ‘perceived offense,” and deserving of ‘personal scorn or active punishment” (Dula, Geller, & Chumney, 2011, p.326). When driving, we cannot always determine what other people’s’ intentions or motives are. Therefore, we make unreliable opinions about their personality based solely on how they drive. For instance, if someone cuts you off and then continues to weave through traffic, you may come to a negative conclusion about that driver. Despite the situation or circumstances, (maybe it is an emergency or they were trying to avoid a collision), you have already decided what kind of person they are. Since you have concluded that this person is of questionable character, you may believe that person is deserving of retaliation because of what they did to you, which leads to the concept of reciprocity.
According to Dula, Geller, and Chumney (2011, p.327), reciprocity is the pressure to repay in kind what we have received from someone else, and is one of the most compelling social norms in human culture. Usually when we refer to reciprocity we think of returning a favor or being nice because someone is nice to us. However, the rule of reciprocity can have the opposite effect as well, where ‘we try to harm those who harm us” (Dula et al., 2011, p.327). When applied to driving, the principle of reciprocity compels drivers to get ‘payback” on others who appear to be driving aggressively.
Hostile attribution bias, is a cognitive bias that also contributes to road rage. Hostile attribution bias ‘is the tendency to perceive ambiguous actions by others as hostile actions” (Bushman, 2018). Typically, people with this viewpoint will believe others’ behaviors are harmful and done with purposeful intent even if it is accidental. When applied to driving, people may discern another driver’s unintentional actions as a personal insult. Drivers with this bias, are then more likely to react aggressively in return. They will also view their response as appropriate and reasonable even if the situation is ambiguous (Dula et al., 2011, p.329).
In Fischer, Kubitzki, Guter, and Frey’s (2007) experiment, they compare participants who played a neutral game (non-racing game), and participants who played a racing game. The researchers analyzed how the participants reacted in traffic simulated situations. Participants that had played the racing games were more receptive to ‘risk-taking cognitions” and also took ‘greater risks in computer-simulated road traffic situations” (Fischer et al., 2007). Furthermore, research also found priming played a role in activating aggressive cognitions.
In cognitive psychology priming is when exposure to one stimulus leads to an association of certain feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. In regards to Fisher et al (2007) analyses, the video games acted as the ‘priming stimulus” to ‘ trigger several associations consisting of aggressive thoughts, expectations, beliefs… [and] even provide the starting point for aggressive behaviors.” Not only, can video games and movies increase the likelihood of reckless driving, but also stimulate similar dangerous cognitions and behaviors through priming.
A behaviorist is going to define anger using observable behavior. It is very clear when someone is aggressively driving, they will often be speeding, cursing, or driving in a dangerous matter. One widely accepted theory is that there must be an external reason for anger (Berkowitz and Harmon-Jones, 2004, p.109). A stimulus presented that caused one to drive with road rage. From a behavioral standpoint, this aggressive driving had to be learned somewhere. Seeing other forms of displaced anger or anger on the road would be how they learned this.
The agreed upon theory that something external is the origin of anger is usually the case in road rage incidents. Typically, one can blame traffic or another aggressive driver as the source of their aggression. However, there are factors that are more internal that result in low levels of irritation and anger. Some studies report that people with recurring headaches or those with physical discomforts are more likely to become subject to anger (Berkowitz and Harmon-Jones, 2004, p.114). Physical pains and psychological pains both play into the internal anger arousal. In Mikulincer’s (1988) study participants were made to fail slightly on a task given. The participants who blamed themselves became more frustrated and angrier. Even though an external entity is most often the case when concerning aggressive driving, it may not be the only factor to consider.
The constant exposure to violence has impacted the society we live in today. Every day through television, movies, social media, and news, you see aggressive acts take place. Viewing all this anger on a regular basis normalizes it. You learn to live with it and eventually do it yourself. This social learning theory has been tested throughout the history of psychology. Looking at Bandura’s (1960) bobo doll experiment the results show you the children exposed to the abrasive play were more aggressive with the bobo doll compared to the children who were not exposed to the aggressive play (McLeod, 2014). Those same principles can be applied when driving, those who witnessed forms of destructive driving are liable to be more destructive drivers when subjected to aggression arousal.
There are different anger arousal stimuli. Most simple being goal oriented or perceiving something as unfair (Berkowitz and Harmon-Jones, 2004, p.109). Goal oriented anger is when you are blocked from reaching your goal. An example of this is when you are trying to get to work but there is traffic. The goal is to go to work, but traffic is stopping you, causing frustration. This frustration often leads to road rage behaviors like tailgating. Acting aggressive because something is perceived as unfair, is the idea that one is upset because that is not ‘supposed to happen”. It’s the belief that this is not the reward or punishment deserved. Weiss, Suckow, and Cropanzano (1999) did an experiment where they manipulated the outcomes given to participants. The results clearly show how upset the participants become when you distort what they believe is supposed to happen. Things like this cause frustrations and then people do not handle their feelings correctly and it escalates. This is why 33% of car accidents are the results of road rage.
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