We asked the experts to explain a few things about our behavior behind the wheel.
The balding suit in the Porsche? (Midlife crisis.) The woman with the armor-plated Hummer? (Anger issues.) The twosome in the Toyota Prius? (The perfect couple?) Sure, for some people, cars are simply a way to get around. But for others, there's a more complicated relationship at play, fraught with power and desire, memories and nostalgia, paralyzing anxiety or deep pleasure. More and more, scientists are fixing their high beams on the psychology of driving.
Why We Buy the Cars We Do
What we drive often has to do with that other drive (yep, sex), says evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, PhD, author of Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. Miller compares the typical male BMW owner to the bowerbird of Australia, which builds elaborately decorated nests to lure females into what you might call his plush backseat. As for the woman driver, her zippy Mustang convertible advertises openness and assertiveness. Consciously or not, Miller says, humans use vehicles to signal their desirability as mates. "Cars are one of the most public displays we make to create a first impression."
In fact, a 2007 study by Miller in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that men interested in a quick hookup are more willing to blow money on a flashy car: Miller will bet that women know on some level that a man in a Porsche Boxster is probably not husband material. As for when couples marry, their new concern for nurturing is often expressed in a planet-hugging hybrid or cocooning minivan.
According to experts, this is a common phobia. "A typical patient is a healthy 25-year-old woman who's convinced she's going to have a heart attack behind the wheel, or is going to veer off a bridge," says Jerilyn Ross, director of the Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders in Washington, D.C., and author of One Less Thing to Worry About. "The person is aware that the panic is irrational but is powerless to control it."
Ross is careful to distinguish driving phobia from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from an auto accident or the loss of a loved one in a crash. To overcome a phobia, many people need fewer than a dozen sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy—during which they learn techniques to identify and challenge the negative thoughts, along with relaxing breathing exercises. The therapist might also ride with white-knuckle drivers through stressful situations until the phobia gradually dispels. "I'll take people who haven't driven in 15 years, and within five or six sessions they're out on the highway," Ross says.
Mind Over Chatter
As we all know, we shouldn't drive and text—or (God forbid) put on makeup in the rearview mirror. But psychologists say that even having a hands-free conversation is distracting.
Marcel Just, PhD, and Tim Keller, PhD, researchers at the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, scanned the brains of 29 volunteers as they cruised on a video-simulated road while judging spoken statements as true or false. Compared with a control group, their brains showed a 37 percent drop in activity in the region associated with spatial processing. "When listening to the statements, the subjects' lane maintenance deteriorated substantially," says Just.
Although some cars now offer systems in which the steering wheel vibrates or there's a beep if you drift from your lane, the best safety feature is an alert mind—focused on the road.
Leon James, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and creator of antiaggression driving workshops, teaches the most notorious tailgaters and bird-flippers—often mild-mannered citizens in other situations—how to curb their road rage. Replacing negative thoughts about other drivers is a good place to start, he says. "When someone else leaves their blinker on, instead of thinking, 'Look at that idiot,' train yourself to say, 'Oh, I do that sometimes myself.'" (For a wake-up call, James has his students drive with a tape recorder—and then listen to their surprisingly hostile responses.) Another important shift of gear: Learn to view driving not as a competitive, me-first game but as a team sport. Relaxation techniques are also helpful, James says.
Such lessons could be lifesaving. Lab simulations run at Colorado State University show that in slow, frustrating conditions hostile drivers crash twice as often as calm ones do.