Driving aggression: the word to the psychologist


AGGRESSIVE BY CAR: WHY? – The are not rare verbal confrontations among road users: some recent episodes also testify to this. We talk about it with Francesco Fisichella, psychologist and psychotherapist (pictured below).

Why do you sometimes experience excessive reactions while driving?
First, let’s clarify what aggression is. It is a characteristic of the personality that predisposes to attack or damage others, is influenced by biological, psychological and social factors and manifests itself in different degrees according to the contexts. As part of the guide, the scientific literature is so vast that the definition of “road rage” has been coined. It is a syndrome of verbal or physical aggression, anger from a driver towards another road user. Who is not necessarily another motorist, but he can also be a motorcyclist, a cyclist, a pedestrian, a person who goes on an electric scooter. And viceversa. Discussions arise that can degenerate into offenses and, at worst, into very dangerous physical confrontations.

Has the stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic increased this road aggressiveness?
It cannot be excluded that the “lockdown” from Covid-19 has increased the inner frustration that someone unloads when he is on the street. Some researchers claim that the anger it would be stimulated by the anonymity that derives from the passenger compartment. The car is experienced as a “protective shell“. We feel safe, as if we were at home. And this condition authorizes us to bring out even the most characterizing aspects from an emotional point of view, if the protective layer is put a little at risk. But the critical element is cognitive overload. Driving today, with traffic and various environmental and safety constraints, is increasingly an activity that engages and stresses us mentally and physically. There are those who cannot stand the pressure when they are “bottled” in the queue. So much so that an urban shift or a trip on the highway becomes an nervous odyssey.

What are the consequences of cognitive overload?
Psychological pressure leads us to lower control a lot, leaving room for impulsiveness, with outbursts of anger and aggression. Everything that is outside the car is seen as an enemy and the cause of our nervousness, especially if we are already under stress due to health, interpersonal relationships and work issues. And here we return to the coronavirus pandemic issue, which has put everyone to the test.

Does the character of the individual affect one’s aggression in the car?
Some research shows a correlation between personality and driving style. In a survey conducted on 171 British motorists, there was a close correlation between the aggressive temperament of the driver, the number of traffic offenses and the tendency to manifest very quickly intolerance to unexpected events, with verbal and physical outbursts. But even a calm person can become aggressive when driving, especially if the stress level due to traffic is high. In short, if there are people more prone to impulsivity, nobody can be said to be free from excessive emotional reactions, especially if the personal stress index related to one’s quality of life is very bad. Frustrations are sometimes vented while driving.

How heavy is traffic?
Quite a lot of. A study by the German University of Mannheim highlights how the context of the city and traffic is perceived as an “unnatural environment” by our brain. On the basis of our DNA, each individual would be free to walk in the woods or go hunting, without constraints and without necessarily having to attend to their fellowmen. On the contrary, in urban traffic one is forced to live in a hostile context, with unknown people, noises, lights. This “primitive” contrast, with the addition of unhealthy air that you breathe, acts on the nervous level, causing an oxygen deficit in the brain that generates altered behavioral and emotional responses. The principle applies to everyone, however, not only for motorists but also for other road users.

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