The Psychology of Traffic – 2

I’ve been thinking more about the new book, Traffic ,by Tom Vanderbilt. I posted recently on it and offered a few tidbits of information on traffic congestion, but what I’ve been thinking about is more the psychology of driving. He makes an interesting point early on by way of analogy to language:

Think of language, perhaps the defining human characteristic. Being in a car renders us mostly mute. Instead of complex vocabularies and subtle shifts in facial expression, the language of traffic is reduced – necessarily, for reasons of safety and economy – to a range of basic signals, formal and informal, that convey only the simplest of meanings. [p. 21]

The reduction in “language” that is necessary for driving also brings us to many concepts from cognitive and social psychology that are helpful for us to understand:

  • “fundamental attribution error” or attributing the actions of others to who they are (e.g., that impulsive person just cut me off to make it to the exit ramp);
  • “actor-observer effect” or taking into consideration my circumstances/context in explaining my own behavior (e.g., I had to squeeze into that opening if I had any chance to make it to the exit ramp safely.”);
  • The tendency to project ourselves onto our car or to experience our car as an extension of our self (e.g., “We say, ‘Get out of my way,’ not ‘Get out of my and my car’s way'” [p. 24];
  • The anonymity of driving that leads to the “nose-pick factor” and the tendency to work through feelings (e.g., “grieving while driving”; p. 26) and encourages aggression, as when we will likely never see others again, so there is less reason not to cut them off, etc. Perhaps his later analogy will help: it’s “like being in an online chat room under a pseudonym” [p. 27].’
  • “Reciprocal altruism” or the response we have to others who do something kind to us on the road (e.g., letting us in when we are attempting to merge). Kindness begets kindness, while nastiness begets nastiness, even when it puts us in peril.
  • “The psychology of queuing” in which we understand why other lanes always seem to move faster than the one we’ve picked (e.g., one leading researcher acknowledges that “unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time” and “unexplained waits are longer than explained waits”; p. 41);
  • The “optimistic bias” in which most of us think we are better than the average driver;

I am still reading the last third of the book, but I’ve enjoyed it and recommend it to others who want to know more about research in this area and interesting findings associated with driving, merging, traffic congestion, and so on.

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