Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].


Q:  Why is it that road rage is such a trend these days? What exactly is road-rage and what leads people to engage in this behavior?


A:  Many drivers (from all walks of life) may be driven to acts of road-rage (no pun intended). Reports of road-rage have increased in recent years and is now considered a serious safety concern for all motorists and pedestrians alike. Road-rage is an act of driver aggression that can be displayed on any type of roadway (highways, residential streets, commercial districts and even parking lots). These acts can include (but are not limited to) fast/reckless driving, obscene gestures, verbal/physical threats and assaults, and, in extreme cases, have even resulted in death.

The reasons underlying acts of road-rage may be understood by examining frustration-based theories of aggression, the need for immediate gratification and the degrees of anonymity that our personal vehicles provide. The link between frustration and acts of aggression has been evidenced over the last century. The idea is that we begin with an attainable goal (one which we have every reason to believe we can meet – if unimpaired). As we set out to achieve this goal, our mindset is one of unbridled accomplishment. Then, an obstacle suddenly presents itself, representing an unexpected/undesirable block that delays or prevents our progress. Frustration ensues, as our drive toward goal accomplishment is thwarted. We then target our frustration toward the “cause” of the delay and direct our aggression toward the obstacle in an act of impulsive retaliation.

For example, imagine that you’ve been warned by your boss to not be late for work. One day, your alarm fails and you wake up late, but still have enough time to get to work. You get in your vehicle and off you go. You’re sailing along – believing that you can make it on time (goal is attainable) – when suddenly a large farming vehicle pulls out in front of you, blocking your progress. Your frustration may lead to anger, and it’s at this point where road-rage is likely to emerge. However, note that if you had woken up too late to make it to work on time (goal not attainable), your expectation for success would have been reduced – along with your level of frustration. In this scenario, you are more likely to reason, “Oh well…I wasn’t going to make it anyway.”

It is worth mentioning that frustration appears to be heightened in industrialized societies where time-orientation is emphasized. Americans are very time-driven in that we must manage our daily lives according to very strict schedules. This cultural climate leaves most of us navigating a variety of obstacles as we desperately attempt to keep to our personal timelines. When coupled with increased population densities, incidents of road-rage are more likely to occur.

But what of the people who don’t engage in road-rage behaviors? We have learned that while frustration is a definite precursor to road-rage, not all people are equally likely to aggress. Another factor to the equation appears to be “personality type” and our individual needs for gratification. Some personality types are more prone to explicit acts of aggression than others. Some are simply more patient when faced with obstacles or delays, while others possess an egoistic expectation of entitlement toward achieving their goals (I want what I want…and I want it NOW!). Sadly, media instills a demand of immediate gratification upon the viewing public and encourages behaviors that serve to satiate desires instantaneously (living beyond our means by way of credit, for example). And while this mindset is certainly destructive economically, when generalized to the roadways it becomes downright dangerous.

Finally, when our personal identity is obscured, we’re more likely to aggress against others. This is the premise behind KKK members wearing hoods. If we were able to point to a member and say, “Hey look…its Mr. Brown from the bank,” lynching would be significantly reduced. When driving our vehicles, we have this sense of anonymity – where the only link to our identity is via our license plate numbers. There is ample evidence to suggest that anonymity increases the likelihood of all socially destructive behaviors, road-rage included.

Road-rage appears to be a function of increased levels of frustration in a time-pressured society that has been primed to expect immediate attainment of goals. And with decreased personal identity leading to increased willingness to aggress – its no wonder that we’re “driving each other nuts