Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Psychology of Tailgating: Part Two

Some time back I wrote a post about tailgating that included the lyrics to a song I'd written while still in Colorado. It came about one afternoon while trying to deal humorously with a BMW whose driver apparently decided my late father's beautiful '88 Cadillac was so fascinating he had to get as close as he could. My car was naturally flattered, but at 65 miles an hour, the attention wasn't exactly welcome.

Later on, I wondered about him, what motivated his behavior, was he thinking at all or was his mind far away on a beach? Why are some drivers unwilling to keep a reasonable distance? If they want to go faster, why not take the option to pass, especially if the dashed white line clearly says, "Go for it"? I think the same questions may be on the minds of those who've graciously read the first post and I'd like to offer a follow-up that errs less on the side of levity.

There are a lot of factors involved, I'm sure. A driver's attention is drawn away by a cell call as their foot depresses the accelerator proportionate to the intensity of the conversation. This is why you don't want to talk to your ex while the car is moving; tempers flare. Some drivers have psychiatric disorders that make it difficult to manage emotions, particularly under stress and driving can be stressful. Anyone who's ever been late for work knows there are times it's just hard to keep your emotions in check. Before you know it, you've forgotten other people have concerns besides yours and you're doing to them what you hate to have done to you. We're all human, every one of us.

But there's another issue I've observed, or think I've observed, since it reflects an attitude or personality trait and therefore can only be inferred. Some drivers behave as though their vehicle is a symbol of superiority and owning the road is their right and privilege. The presence of another car ahead of them sets off an intriguing cognitive process. If the car appears of comparable value to theirs, they are less likely to tailgate. Instead, they'll keep a respectful distance before accelerating around it. They'll glance at the other driver for recognition, nod and drive on. Strangers and clearly social equals passing like ships in the night. A car of lesser value or vintage, however, represents an imposition their self-importance won't tolerate. 

Now, why is that? Well, the presence of a lesser vehicle in front of them can be understood as triggering feelings related to shame. Not in the way we normally think of it, i.e. being embarrassed or ashamed because of something we've said or done. This is shame in the sense of feeling "less than," of being inferior. This experience may seem minor to you and me, but it's anything but minor to those who've oriented their entire lives around the idea they're deserving of preferential treatment. If you've been whispering to yourself the word, "narcissism," by the way, you get an A+.

Obviously, I don't think everyone who tailgates is narcissistic, but the behavior of some drivers leads me to think it's not uncommon. Consider how narcissistic individuals tend to be exquisitely sensitive to anything suggesting they aren't naturally superior to everyone else. We imagine them possessing the biggest house, newest car, and the most attractive of spouses. The reality is more diverse, though narcissism, generally, is characterized by almost a passion for control and a strong sense of entitlement. To the narcissist, our car constitutes a threat to their self-esteem; it's taking up space that rightly belongs to them. Finally racing past is their way of reminding us of the fact.

It takes very little to set off narcissistic rage, sometimes almost nothing at all. The thing to remember is, on the road or in daily life, it really is all about them, in the sense you aren't to blame for their misbehavior. You aren't inferior and they aren't superior. Accelerating dangerously or giving them the middle finger salute, only puts you at risk because your emotions have taken over your better judgment. They probably wouldn't get the point anyway. As easy as it is to become angry, it's far healthier to switch lanes or pull off the road briefly -- literally and metaphorically -- when it's safe to do so. No one's narcissism is worth an accident, or worse, becoming a statistic.   

(Creative Commons image by Eleventh Earl of Mar via Flickr)

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