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Why motorists get so angry at cyclists — a psychologist’s theory

“My theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they think they offend the moral order,” writes British psychologist Tom Stafford.

Motorists get angry when they think cyclists are getting away with something by breaking society’s agreed-upon rules.
CC/Flickr/Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

A study issued earlier this year found that motor vehicle drivers and cyclists are equally responsible for car-bike collisions in Minneapolis. But, as comments to media reports of that study demonstrate, the finger pointing continues, with bicyclists blaming aggressive drivers for most collisions and drivers blaming “inconsiderate and stupid” cyclists.

The anger from motorists toward cyclists seems especially raw. So I read with interest British psychologist Tom Stafford’s latest Neurohacks column for BBC Future in which he offers his theory for “why cyclists enrage car drivers.”

“It’s not because cyclists are annoying,” he writes. “It isn’t even because we have a selective memory for that one stand-out annoying cyclist over the hundreds of boring, non-annoying ones (although that probably is a factor). No, my theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they think they offend the moral order.”

An evolutionary response

And how, exactly, do cyclists offend that moral order? It has to do, Stafford explains, with two cornerstones of cooperation theory: the “free rider problem” and “altruistic punishment.”

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The free rider problem is the resentment that occurs when we believe some people are “cheating” at what Stafford calls the “game of coordination where we have to rely on each other to do the right thing.”

In other words, we get angry when we think someone else is getting away with something by breaking society’s agreed-upon rules.

And one way humans have evolved to deal with that problem is altruistic punishment.

“Altruistic punishment is a punishment that costs you as an individual, but doesn’t bring any direct benefit,” explains Stafford. “As an example, imagine I’m at a football match and I see someone climb in without buying a ticket. I could sit and enjoy the game (at no cost to myself), or I could try to find security to have the guy thrown out (at the cost of missing some of the game). That would be altruistic punishment.”

Blame evolution

Which brings us back to drivers’ rage at cyclists. Writes Stafford:

[E]volution has built into the human mind a hatred of free-riders and cheaters, which activates anger when we confront people acting like this — and it is this anger which prompts altruistic punishment. In this way, the emotion is evolution’s way of getting us to overcome our short-term self-interest and encourage collective social life.

So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us co-ordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don’t follow the same rules as cars.

Now, cyclists reading this might think “but the rules aren’t made for us — we’re more vulnerable, discriminated against, we shouldn’t have to follow the rules.” Perhaps true, but irrelevant when other road-users perceive you as breaking rules they have to keep. Maybe the solution is to educate drivers that cyclists are playing an important role in a wider game of reducing traffic and pollution. Or maybe we should just all take it out on a more important class of free-riders, the tax-dodgers.

You can read Stafford’s column, which includes details about recent research on this topic, at the BBC Future website.