More than half of car drivers look at cyclists as not being completely human, according to a new study from Australian researchers.
That dehumanization of cyclists may explain why some drivers direct hostility and aggression — often dangerously — at cyclists, the researchers say.
“When you don’t think someone is ‘fully’ human, it’s easier to justify hatred or aggression towards them,” said lead author Alexa Delbosc who teaches transport studies at Monash University in Melbourne, in a released statement.
“This can set up an escalating cycle of resentment,” she added. “If cyclists feel dehumanized by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanization against them.”
As Delbosc and her colleagues point out in their paper, “dehumanization is sometimes thought to occur only in extreme contexts such as war and genocide, [but] it can refer to any situation where people are seen or treated as if they are less than fully human. Subtle forms of it can be observed in everyday life, especially in perceptions of members of devalued groups.”
“On-road cyclists may be one such group,” the researchers add. “[T]hey look and act differently to typical ‘humans,’ they move in a mechanical way, and their faces are not often seen by motorists, blocking empathic responses that might humanize them.”
Apes and insects
For the study, Delbosc and her colleagues surveyed 442 Australians about their attitudes toward cyclists. Almost half (45 percent) of the study’s participants identified themselves as non-cyclists (defined in the study as anyone who had not cycled within the past year).
As part of the survey, the participants were randomly presented with one of two “ascent of man” scales. Half were shown an “ape scale,” an image depicting human evolution from apes (based on the iconic “March of Progress” illustration from the 1960s). This scale is widely used by social psychologists to measure people’s tendency to engage in the dehumanization of “others,” particularly racial, ethnic and religious minorities. People are show the image and then asked to use a slider underneath it to rank where they feel various groups (“Americans,” “Muslims,” “Mexican immigrants”) fall on the scale in relationship to each other.
The other participants in the current study were shown an “insect scale,” which was specially developed by the study’s authors. It is similar to the ape scale, but depicts the stages of evolution from cockroach to human.
The insect scale was used, say the study’s authors, because “many informal slurs against cyclists compare them to ‘mosquitoes’ or ‘cockroaches.’”
Each scale was accompanied by the following instruction: “Some people believe that people can vary in how human-like they seem. According to this view, some people seem highly evolved whereas others seem no different than lower animals. Using the image below as a guide, indicate by marking on the line below how evolved you consider the average cyclist to be.”
The participants in both groups were also asked whether or not they agreed (on a scale of 1 to 5) with a list of statements about cyclists, such as “Many cyclists on the road have not learned to ride properly,” “Drivers are not trained to look out for cyclists,” and “It is very frustrating sharing the road with cyclists.”
Finally, the participants were asked to indicate whether they had ever acted aggressively toward cyclists, including deliberately using their car to cut them off on the road or throwing an object at a cyclist.
Cyclists were rated less than 100 percent human on the “ascent of man” scales by 55 percent of the non-cyclists in the study. (The researchers combined the results of the two scales because the findings showed no statistically significant difference in their ratings.)
Interestingly, almost a third (30 percent) of the cyclists also rated cyclists as not being completely human.
“Perhaps these ‘dehumanising cyclists’ are imagining a different sub-group of cyclists who behave more animalistically than themselves,” the study’s authors write.
The average rating for cyclists from all the study’s participants was 82 out of 100. As the study’s authors point out, that rating is lower (more dehumanizing) than Americans rated Europeans, Japanese, Australians, Mexican immigrants and East Asians in one study, but higher than they rated Arabs and Muslims.
The study also found that acts of aggression toward cyclists are not uncommon. Seventeen percent of the non-cyclists (8 percent of the cyclists) reported they had used their car to deliberately block a cyclist, for example, and 11 percent of the non-cyclists (5 percent of cyclists) said they had deliberately driven a car close to a cyclist.
A starting place
The study comes with plenty of caveats. Most notably, its participants were all Australian. Their attitudes toward cyclists may not be representative of attitudes in other countries, including here in the U.S.
Indeed, the participants of this study, who skewed male, high-income and young, were not even demographically representative of all Australians, as the authors of the study readily acknowledge. That’s because this was a pilot study — one done to see if more research on this topic is warranted.
It would seem, at least from these results, that more study is needed. Negative attitudes toward cyclists aren’t a trifling matter, given that they have the potential to lead to aggressive — and dangerous — incidents on the road.
Cycling-related deaths are on the rise in United States, up 25 percent since 2010.
The authors of the current study say they would like to investigate how to humanize cyclists to reduce anti-cyclist aggression. They note that because of mandatory helmet laws, the hair and faces of cyclists are obscured, perhaps contributing to the dehumanizing beliefs found in this pilot study. In addition, the uniform-like Lycra and fitness gear that many cyclists wear may be contributing to a feeling among the broader public that cyclists are “others.”
“Ultimately we want to understand this process so we can do a better job at putting a human face to people who ride bikes, so that hopefully we can help put a stop to the abuse,” said Delbosc.
One of her co-authors, Narelle Haworth, who is director of the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety at the Queensland University of Technology, believes throwing out the term “cyclist” would be a good way to start.
“Let’s talk about people who ride bikes rather than cyclists because that’s the first step towards getting rid of this dehumanization,” she said.
FMI: The study was published in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour. You’ll find an abstract of the study on the journal’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.