Road Rage is All In Your Head

Interpreting car behavior depends on your state of mind.

Posted Feb 15, 2018

Two cars arrive at a stop sign at the same time. Both start at the intersection. One driver speeds through, while the other jams on the brakes, avoiding a collision. This driver feels insulted, offended, diminished. Who the hell does that other driver think he is? He nearly killed me!

This scenario, and countless others involving merge lanes, contested parking spaces, and aggressive rush hour traffic, are set-ups for road rage. The aggrieved party feels a flash of anger and hostility, and may swear aloud within the confines of his vehicle. He may “give the finger” in a way the other driver may or may not see. He may grumble to passengers about the lousy drivers in his town. Sometimes the response is louder and more direct: yelling at the other driver or even giving chase. At the extreme, enraged parties physically retaliate with weapons, or by using their cars as battering rams.

What’s going on? In a practical sense, the initial harm is often trivial. A moment’s delay at a stop sign would be ignored under other circumstances. The real trigger is what the behavior says about the perpetrator’s attitude—or more precisely, how it was interpreted by the “victim.” Did the aggressive driver proclaim his time was more valuable? Did he disregard or disrespect the other driver? Was it a power play, a demonstration that “I can do whatever I want, and you’re powerless to stop me?” Was it contemptuous? “I don’t have to wait for the likes of you, you’re beneath my consideration.”

Actually, the offended driver doesn’t know. One reason road rage is so prevalent is that the outsides of motor vehicles are inscrutable. We can’t read the nonverbal cues of other drivers. A car with a mean, aggressive driver who couldn’t care less whether you live or die looks very much like a car with a driver who honestly thought it was his turn to enter the intersection, and who would be mortified to know you were offended or frightened as a result of his actions. While you were cursing and giving the finger, he may have been wincing and muttering “Oops, I’m sorry!”  But that was inside his own car. You didn’t know.

Road rage, therefore, is nearly always self-generated. It’s all in your head. Do you tend to think of others as mean-spirited opportunists, ready to take advantage of you, disdainful of your wants and needs? Or do you give strangers the benefit of the doubt, assume they meant no harm and didn’t aim to insult or diminish you?

Either attitude is contagious. I recently visited a country with polite drivers. I never felt stressed even if it wasn’t clear whose turn it was at an intersection. It didn’t matter; we were all content to defer to the others. In contrast, when traffic is dog-eat-dog, and when our self-worth rises or falls with our ability to cut through it efficiently, then everyone else is a rival and an obstacle.

None of this is unique to road rage. Yesterday I was in a supermarket express checkout line, “15 items or less.” (Um, “fewer.”) Ahead of me, another shopper was packing up three bags of groceries. I stood there steaming as she slowly ended her cell phone call and took her good old time to pay the $63 she owed. I rehearsed angry comments in my head: “I guess even people who can’t count still need to eat.” I didn’t actually say anything.

Later I wondered what exactly irritated me so much. I could have been equally delayed, yet completely untroubled, by any number of things. It wasn’t the wait itself, it was my perception of the perpetrator’s attitude. Apparently the supermarket’s rules didn’t apply to her. She was self-important and inconsiderate. Looming even larger psychologically was her attitude toward me. I imagined she didn’t care about me at all. My inconvenience was not her concern. I felt disrespected, not taken into account.

These situations happen all the time.  A patient of mine recently shared how angry he feels when his teenage kids fail to turn off lights after he’s reminded them repeatedly. We agreed it’s not the trivial increase in his electricity bill that bugs him. It’s his perception of their laziness, their disrespect towards him and his values, perhaps their willful defiance.

In all these settings, indeed throughout our lives, we react to interpersonal transactions taking place in our own heads. Occasionally our perceptions of contempt and disdain are accurate. Sometimes brats, narcissists, and sociopaths really do put themselves first, and either don’t care about us or actively seek to hurt us. But more often we’ve concocted a story. We’ve been insulted, pushed around, treated like dirt. And in response we self-righteously strike back.

How can we escape this hall of mirrors? Most simply, we can remind ourselves that our assumptions about others may be mistaken. We may recognize that we tend to assume the worst in people, and take this bias into account. There’s no need to assume evil intent when sheer stupidity—or momentary confusion or misunderstanding—can account for the behavior.

More psychoanalytically, we may reflect on our unconscious wish for care-taking and nurturance from others, and the anger that results when real life inevitably falls short of this yearning. Such insight may spare us from projecting our own anger onto anonymous others. And more philosophically, with years of meditation and discipline, we could learn to detach our egos. Slights from others have no effect on the Self. I believe this is one small aspect of Buddhist enlightenment, but don’t quote me.

Meanwhile, on that long road to enlightenment, it doesn’t hurt to drive defensively. And take a few deep breaths.

©2018 Steven Reidbord MD.  All rights reserved.