When another driver cuts you off and you honk like mad, what are you really angry about? Is it that you could have been hurt or your car could have been smashed?
Perhaps something more primal is at work:
- Some scientists now think road rage and other personal space disputes â€“ neighbor feuds over intrusive flora or spats with gym hogs who won't let others work in â€“ boil up from responses selected by evolution to protect resources and ensure survival of the species. Recent findings in the field of evolutionary psychology suggest that a mandate to defend turf is at the root of some of the species' most irrational and violent behavior: jealousy, assaults, murder.
"Humans have developed adaptations to prevent people from encroaching on our stuff," says David M. Buss, whose latest book, "The Murderer Next Door," examines how these changes, such as territorial mate-guarding and jealousy, play a role in homicides. The impulses are part of a survival program designed to make us react first and think later, if at all.
"When someone cuts us off on the road, it triggers an ancient evolved adaptation to protect social reputation," Buss says. "People become known as the kind who won't take any ... or the kind you can exploit with impunity. If the person fails to respond to the trespass, then it signals exploitability. It tells the trespasser that he/she can trespass in the future."
More than a bruised ego is at stake. People who are "exploitable" might be less likely to attract a mate and propagate â€“ the mandate behind most territorial behavior, Buss says.
Another reason why people are more likely to go nuts while driving is that they're shielded by thousands of pounds of armor. Folks are less likely to flip each other off while standing in line at the bank and that's because most of us prefer to avoid physical confrontations, especially with those who look like they could beat our faces in. Yet when we're on the road we don't have to make those "I wonder if I could take this guy" calculations.
All that armor also makes it harder to pick up on subtle but important social cues. Someone at the bank may accidentally cut in front of you but the person's sheepish look may say "I'm sorry" before the lips do. But when we're driving honest, malice-free mistakes are harder to notice and we're more likely to assign ugly motives to the SOB who cut us off.
NOTE: I've emerged from hibernation and will begin blogging again. Sam Staley and I have been hustling to meet a deadline for a book that explores the importance of mobility (it also touches on some psychological aspects similar to the themes discussed above). The book will be out later this year and you can bet that we'll do a lot of blabbing about it.