There’s nothing like a hot, sunny Sunday to draw a crowd to the beach. Bondi, at its best, has been known to host thousands of beachgoers at any one time, especially over Christmas and New Year’s. To the unsuspecting visitor who’s decided to pack the car and head in for a bit of cool relief, it might be fair to say they could be in for a shock. Crowds bring traffic, and with traffic comes road rage.
The term ‘road rage’ came out of Los Angeles in the late ‘80s after various random shootings occurred on a number of interstate roads and freeways across the city. It sounds heavy, and perhaps a little extreme for our Sunday trip down to Bondi, but with crowded roads comes stress, and with stress comes anger that can lead to aggression if left unchecked.
So, what exactly is road rage? I suspect we all know the answer to that, but does it play differently now compared with thirty-odd years ago? Social media might hold the answer; it’s full of various altercations that have been caught on dash cams and mobile phones. News bulletins love it and YouTubers can’t get enough of it. Because most drivers have experienced it in some form, it’s worth taking a closer look at the main emotional experience here: anger.
Different people experience anger in different ways. That might sound a bit light and fluffy but it is worth a deeper look. At a general level, people tend to get mad when their expectations are violated. If you’re counting on someone to act a certain way and these expectations are not met, then you’re more likely to get angry. Anger can also surface when unpleasant things happen, such as stubbing your toe or spilling the milk. It can also surface if you’re physically or psychologically restrained, like being on a crowded bus or being told you can’t have something for what seems like no good reason.
With this in mind, let’s picture some poor guy battling his way up Bondi Road, desperate to get to the beach. On his hot and now frustrating journey, two separate things happen that generate two different responses. First, a truck is parked in a ‘No Parking’ zone, leaving traffic backed up trying to merge. Despite being frustrated and becoming angry, our man doesn’t really react. Second, our man, who has almost made it out of the bottleneck, gets cut off at the roundabout near the beach car park entrance by a driver who fails to indicate. He begins to turn green, his shirt starts tearing off his ripped rig as his muscles bulge, and his pants have turned purple for some reason.
Why is our man reacting so differently in the second scenario? In the first scenario there is no one in the truck, and hence no one to actually blame. In the second scenario, however, he falls directly into the trap of what is known in psychology terminology as ‘the fundamental attribution error’. This error is actually one of the most common impulses in human social reasoning, where upon trying to interpret someone else’s behaviour we tend to overestimate the influence of personal factors and underestimate the role of external situational factors.
In other words, he was quick to blame the other driver’s lack of regard on their personality and failed to consider that there may have been a situational cause that stopped them from indicating. By turning into the Hulk, calling the other driver a so-and-so, and raising his big green middle finger, he had drawn an inference on the other driver’s character. Unfortunately the Hulk did not realise that the other driver had in fact just dodged an iPhone addicted pedestrian and, in his flustered state, had forgotten that his car was a European model and turned the wipers on by mistake. Hence the failure to indicate was fully attributed to the person, rather than the situation.
In the cauldron of road rage, anger towards another is the main ingredient. But remember before you react and start turning into the Hulk yourself, to take a deep breath, count to ten, and then consider that the incident was perhaps due to circumstance and not the other person’s character. All that aside, the fact that the driver of the European car was driving, well, a European car, takes us onto another topic for another day: stereotyping. See you next month.