Road Rage Demystified: Why We Get So Mad, And What We Can Do To Calm Down

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Photo from Mark Sardella

Road rage is a reality, and chances are pretty good that if you’re reading this, you’ve experienced it at some point in your life. (And for some of us, we experience it several times per day.) What is it about the driving infractions of other people that causes so much animosity, and why don’t we get as mad at ourselves when we do something stupid behind the wheel? Psychology Today’s Dr. Ryan Martin recently weighed in on the road rage phenomenon, identifying the four primary reasons why we blow up when someone “wrongs” us on the highway. According to Martin, the four contributing factors are tension, goal-blocking, setting our own rules, and the cover of anonymity. Let’s look at each one.

 

Tension

Where does the tension of driving come from? According to Martin, it’s from the inherent danger of driving. “Because it is dangerous, it makes us nervous,” Martin writes. “Even if we are so used to it that we don’t notice it anymore, we still feel some tension when we drive. Our heart rate increases, our muscles tense up, etc. What this means for anger is that we are primed for feeling strong emotions. That tension state makes us more likely to get angry when faced with a provocation.”

A lot of road rage incidents would never flare up if we learned to relax behind the wheel, but too much relaxation can slow down reaction time. Finding the balance is critical.

 

Goal-Blocking

When we sit down behind the wheel, we do so with a destination in mind. That destination comes with a timed schedule in our heads, and any disruption of these things can create more tension, Martin notes, adding, “In other words, we have a goal in mind and it’s long been known that when our goals are blocked, we get angry.”

Martin continued: “Every red-light that stops us, every driver going too slow, and every poorly marked intersection is one more thing keeping us from our goal. In fact, you’ve probably noticed that when you are running late for something (or when being on time is extra important), you get even angrier about these sorts of slow-downs. This is because the more important the goal, the worse those instances of goal-blocking become, and the more angry we get.”

Realizing that the destination is still going to be there whether you’re on time or a few minutes late, is a step towards overcoming this obstacle. Don’t be in such a hurry. After all, how many times have you seen someone blow past you only to get caught at the same light a few minutes later. Here they were, burning rubber, while you’re going the speed limit, and you’re basically sitting at the side-by-side.

 

Setting Our Own Rules

When you take your driver’s test — written, specifically — there is a sense of accomplishment that you know how to operate a motor vehicle in every situation. Then, you pass the driving portion, and you’re officially an expert (at least in your own mind).

Unfortunately, most of what you’ve just conquered goes out the window at that point, and you start making your own rules. “We have speed limits, rules governing intersections, and a host of other laws that dictate how we should drive,” explains Martin. “However, few people follow those written rules to the letter of the law. Most people have their own set of rules that loosely follow the written ones. For example, most people don’t follow the speed-limit but use it as a guideline for how fast they are willing to drive on a particular road.”

What this means, Martin notes, “is that we all have our own, slightly different, set of rules.”

“When someone violates our rules, we get angry. Imagine, for a moment, that you think driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone is appropriate. If you come up behind someone driving 60 mph and can’t pass, you might get angry because he or she isn’t driving fast enough. If someone comes up and rides your bumper because you aren’t going fast enough, you might get angry at him or her for going too fast. In this scenario, you are all violating the written rule (i.e., the speed limit) but your anger is the result of the other drivers having broken your personal, unwritten rule.”

While you may not be able to escape the “my-way-on-the-highway” mindset, refer back to the actual rules the next time you feel yourself getting angry at someone who is going too slow or following too closely. It may not help you get rid of the road rage altogether, but it does have a way of snapping you out of your own little world.

 

The Cover Of Anonymity

Last but not least, the fact that road rage is generally directed at individuals we don’t know has a lot to do with why the anger intensifies beyond what it would in any other circumstance or situation.

This cover of anonymity “makes it really easy for us to label them negatively or make assumptions about why they did what they did,” Martin writes. “For example, imagine you were driving on the interstate and come up on a car driving just below the speed limit. You might label that person a hazard or overly cautious and get angry. But, imagine that you found out that the person had recently been in a terrible car accident and that this was his first time back on the road. Your perception of that person’s driving might change greatly but, because other drivers are anonymous to us, we rarely get the opportunity for that sort of understanding.”

Lesson: before you fly into a rage and wish death or a terminal illness on the person in front of you, learn to empathize and try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

 

In Summary

Road rage can be detrimental to the pocketbook and even the life of a driver. When you get frazzled out on the road, it’s easy to make mistakes, and those mistakes can lead to accidents, tickets, or even physical (and sometimes deadly) altercations. Nothing is worth losing your mind over. Try to keep these factors at the front of your thoughts the next time someone cuts you off, tailgates, or drives too slowly.

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