A cognitive ‘cure’ for road rage..?

Not taking everything personally is the first step to challenging rage on the road. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Salvatore Vuono)

Not taking everything personally is the first step to tackling feelings of road rage. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Salvatore Vuono)

Another day, another road-rage incident – or so it seems. In the news we’re always hearing about the latest road rage episode, where someone is outraged by another person’s driving and takes revenge. Road rage can go beyond daily snarling behind the wheel, and far too frequently leads to dangerous behaviours – from spitting and swearing to angry gestures, physical attacks and even use of weapons.

Psychologists have looked long and hard at road rage and its causes, and have concluded that it is the distortion in drivers’ thinking that causes many crashes, cut-ups and collisions. The latest research into road rage, from the Free University of Brussels seems to suggest that tackling this distorted thinking in drivers – and getting them to challenge their angry and destructive thoughts – can help to reduce the rage that’s provoked by other drivers’ behaviour on the road.

Basically, if a driver thinks the other person has cut him up on purpose, he may feel that it’s a personal attack on him. He may respond aggressively, and believe the other driver needs to be ‘taught a lesson’. This is an all-too-familiar situation in traffic-heavy roads in busy, urban environments where everyone is in a total rush.

In a psychological experiment, 40 male drivers were asked to challenge their distorted thinking when someone else on the road did something that could trigger their own aggressive driving. Some of the participants were asked to devise an ‘antidote’ to the thoughts that would automatically pop into their head when someone cut them up, didn’t indicate, or overtook inappropriately. These antidotes were phrases, in their own words, which countered the belief that the aggressive/bad drivers were out to get them.

In psychological speak, these phrases were “inoculations” against the distorted thinking that could lead drivers to retaliate against people they perceived to be bad drivers who had in in for them.

The ‘control’ group in the psychology experiment (not inoculated) had discussions about hostile driving, but didn’t come up with their own phrases to counter their negative thinking. In subsequent tests, the people who had inoculated themselves had far fewer accidents (in simulated driving tests) than people who hadn’t.

The key learning from this experiment, in my opinion, is not to take every single daily ‘offence’ against you as something personal. Find an alternative way of distancing yourself from the perceived slight. Whether you’re behind the wheel or otherwise.

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