Field Guide To The Backseat Driver: Pedal to The Meddle

Because you could do everything better.

By Elizabeth Svoboda, published May 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Stephanie Burchfield is the first to admit it: She's a horrible backseat driver. Her take-charge instinct manifests itself in many situations, including advising her friends as to the kind of organic, healthy food they should be eating. "They've all told me to shut up," says the 49-year-old public relations executive from Phoenix, Arizona. "My husband says meals are not the right time to spark a conversation about inhumane farming practices or issues surrounding quality control in non-organic food processing."

It's an enduring stereotype in popular culture: the person who aims to dispense helpful advice—in the car or elsewhere—and ends up being annoying, not to mention distracting. Take Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy, who's constantly telling her chauffeur exactly how to drive, or Ned Flanders in The Simpsons, who dispenses moral bromides to neighbors along with his customary good cheer.

Backseat drivers are comical in fiction only; in real life, it's hard to overstate the irritation they can provoke. Their unsolicited advice—however well-intentioned—carries the subtext, "I don't trust you to handle this on your own." "It's like you're playing solitaire and someone starts telling you what cards to put down," says Jerry Burger, a social psychologist at Santa Clara University.

While the criticisms they issue can intimidate those on the receiving end, unwanted authorities are often acting out of their own fear of the unknown, says Pasadena psychologist Ryan Howes. They offer unsolicited advice in an attempt to combat their own feelings of powerlessness—like the realization that they cannot fix the situation if the driver makes a mistake.

Burger once conducted a study in which subjects were told a sample of their blood would be taken. They could prick their own finger or have an experienced technician do it. People who fit the backseat driver profile—those with a high need for personal control—chose the former. "Even in that situation, they say, 'Nah, I'll do it myself,'" Burger says. "They just can't give that up, even if it means hurting themselves."

Psychologist Steven Reiss of Ohio State University concurs. "The backseat driver is an individual who has a strong need to feel influence, and they're always looking for ways to express that need."

Where does a meddler's deep-seated desire for control come from? "If you grew up in an environment that was kind of chaotic, it's almost a defensive sort of reaction," Burger says. "We've seen this in homes where a parent has an alcohol problem, for example—those children develop a need for control themselves."

Other backseat drivers can trace their personality quirk to a specific, traumatizing life event. "An accident happened right in front of me on the freeway," says Cameron Bays, an account coordinator from Portland, Oregon. "I stopped in time, but a truck hit me. From that point on, I didn't really trust drivers who hadn't experienced an accident before."

Most commonly, however, backseat driving emanates from a psychological trait that's usually considered positive—confidence that your knowledge base is solid, that you're capable enough to influence any situation for the better. "Often backseat drivers do have a level of exper-tise: 'I want to share with you some of the wisdom that I have,'" Ryan Howes says.

Burchfield embodies that assessment. "I've owned my own business for 15 years," she says, "and I'm more comfortable being in charge than being in the passenger seat." Figuratively or literally—if she feels unsafe when someone else is behind the wheel, she doesn't hesitate to make her opinion known. The car's other occupants, usually her husband and two daughters, don't always appreciate her candor. "My husband is extremely tolerant, but when I get in the car, you can see the eyes start rolling."

Just as her husband and daughters roll their eyes in the car, strangers tend not to react well to Burchfield's unsolicited criticism. That's because when we think someone is threatening our freedom of choice, we tend to act forcefully in an attempt to restore that freedom, according to the psychologist William Miller of the University of New Mexico. In a study of problem drinkers, Miller found that the more persistently therapists confronted clients about their excessive alcohol use, the more the clients rebelled by continuing to drink.

Backseat drivers often realize their advice-giving habit can grate on others; still they find it difficult to change their ways. "It's something I can't help—short of biting my tongue until it bleeds," Burchfield says.

Instead of going cold turkey on criticism, a resolution that is unlikely to last for long, Howes recommends that backseat drivers strive to soften the edges of their approach. "It's possible to offer an opinion without being intrusive. Saying 'I have a thought on this if you'd like to hear it' gives the other person that little bit of control to say yes or no."

Those in the driver's seat can do their part to calm the situation. While it's easy to respond with knee-jerk hostility to unsolicited advice ("It's none of your business"), a more effective strategy—and one that preserves the peace—may be to find a helpful outlet for the advice-giver. If you're planning a wedding and your mother keeps calling with opinions on everything from the cake flavor to the color of the flower girls' dresses, ask if she'd like to be in charge of something specific like assembling the table centerpieces. In a car, put the meddler in charge of the radio or navigation.

Stephanie Burchfield's youngest daughter, 16, is beginning to learn to drive, and Burchfield recognizes the toll her tendencies could take on their relationship. Still, she reports some recent success with keeping her impulses in check—with her daughter as well as with others. When she frames her input as a personal preference people seem to take less offense.

Burchfield doesn't think she'll ever be able to shake the backseat driver mantle entirely. She does, however, recognize it for what it is, which allows her to inject some levity into the proceedings. "We deal with it with a certain amount of humor—my weird inability to just sit and ride has become a joke. I've created a family culture where people feel free to pick apart my driving, too." —Elizabeth Svoboda

Better Backseat Driving

  • Take a deep breath before you offer criticism. Ask yourself a quick question: "Is it really critical?" advises psychologist Marcia Reynolds, the author of Outsmart Your Brain. "Maybe it's not that big a deal." Weigh the importance of your input against the negative impact your intervention is likely to have on the relationship.
  • Imagine how you might react if the tables were turned. Reynolds, a self-professed backseat driver in recovery, characterizes her former attitude as, "I can tell other people what to do, but they can't tell me what to do." When she realized this approach was nonsensical, she got better at biting her tongue.
  • Give advice to people who'll appreciate it. Your sister might bristle if you tell her she needs to test-drive a different haircut, but volunteering at a career center or mentoring high school students puts you in contact with people eager to benefit from your perspective and expertise. Reiss advises, "Get yourself into situations where someone like you can thrive."