Road Rage

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Road Rage

Refusing to wait for the lights to change. Sneakily stealing a parking space. It was the idea that other road users were disrespecting the rules that made drivers bristle with INDIGNATION and start to retaliate. There were tales of motorists cutting each other off, ramming vehicles in front, even climbing out of their cars wielding crowbars.

Road rage was first named in the late 1980s by news pundits, alarmed at a sudden outbreak of violence on America’s highways. Today, on both sides of the Atlantic, such frenzies are widely accepted as one of the hazards of the roads.

Driving on busy roads is undeniably stressful, but is this the only cause of aggression? A more important factor may be the way we become temporarily disinhibited behind the wheel. Inside our cars, we feel as if we are hidden and protected, as though wearing a mask or a suit of armor. It’s the same when we roam about in Internet chat rooms or contribute to comments threads: without eye-to-eye contact, we’re less able to pick up emotional cues. This makes us less likely to recognize drivers as other humans, and, further, allows paranoid or hostile feelings to fill the void. An embarrassed wince, apologetic smile—and, significantly, a moment of eye contact—goes a long way to making feelings of indignation evaporate. But driving inside our separate cars, we rarely have the chance to make these connections.

In a now classic study on prosocial behavior (or acting in a way that promotes social cohesion and friendship), first published in 2005, the psychologists Kevin Haley and Daniel Fessler found that subtly displaying images of eyes caused the participants in their experiment to behave in a more generous and conscientious manner. Subsequent experiments have confirmed that when eyes were displayed on a cafeteria honesty box, near recycling bins, and even on a charitable website, people behaved more responsibly. Could something as simple as decorating cars with pictures of eyes reduce aggression on the roads too?

See also: INSULTED, feeling; PARANOIA; rage.