Psychology of Aggression

In the aftermath of the September 11th tragedy, the nation adopted a posture of compassion and tolerance that recalled an earlier, simpler time. But now that more than a year has passed and the country has returned to "normal," a leading behavioral scientist warns motorists to expect an increase in aggressive driving as the widespread compassion seen after the September 11th terrorist attacks becomes a relic of the past.

"Traumatic loss, such as we experienced on September 11, makes us humanize one another," Steven Stosny, Ph.D., director of CompassionPower and a behavioral specialist, said. "We need to comfort and be comforted. When we look for human connection, we're not aggressive; the antidote to aggression is compassion. Unfortunately, this has been short-lived. The problems we're seeing now on our roads and highways are a reflection of a wider community problem of resentment and anger."

What constitutes "aggressive driving?" According to safety experts, the term includes behaviors like speeding, running red lights and stop signs, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic to gain position, using the shoulder of the road instead of waiting in backed-up traffic and "sweeping," or moving across more than one lane of traffic without pausing.

All these actions are most often unsafe, yet thousands seem compelled to drive in this style, threatening others on the highway. Stosny thinks that anger and frustration are key reasons.

"We get the most angry when we feel the most powerless," he said. "Resentful and angry people make themselves even more powerless by blaming their emotions on traffic, the design of the highway and other drivers. The more we focus on what we can't control, such as heavy traffic, the more powerless we feel, and the more we take this feeling out on other drivers."

Why do these feelings manifest themselves on the road? That's easy, replies the expert: on the road, nobody knows who we are.

"Arenas where aggression can be played out are school, home, work, or the highway," Stosny said. "It's most likely to be played out in driving because we don't know the other drivers. We're anonymous."

Interestingly, psychological factors are acerbated by physiological changes associated with anger that also encourage aggressive driving.

"Anger dilates the eyes, distorts depth perception and gives us better peripheral vision," Stosny added. "That's why so many aggressive driving behaviors include tailgating and cutting off other drivers, because aggressive drivers misjudge distances."

Stosny suggests that motorists confronted with aggressive drivers get out of their way, avoid eye contact, ignore rude gestures and resist the temptation to "teach them a lesson." Don't let a jerk make you a jerk, he recommends. Motorists also should avoid tailgating and blocking the passing lane, especially if they are driving more slowly than most of the traffic. He recommends that motorists pull over and dial 911 on their cell phones to report aggressive drivers.

Stosny conducts anger regulation classes to help aggressive drivers understand their behavior behind the wheel and empower themselves by ensuring the safety of every child and adult in every car they see. He is a member of the Smooth Operator Coalition -- a group of officials, government agencies and private sector partners in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. One goal of the program is to warn people of the seriousness of the aggressive driving problem and the steps that can be taken to reduce aggressive driving.

A student of the human condition who is very familiar with aggression, Tom Ripley writes about the automotive world from his home in Villeperce, France.