|Psychoanalytical aspects of driving behaviour|
Psychoanalytical aspects of driving behaviour:
role and fantasy on the road
Oren Kaplan, Silvia Silberman, Rinat Alon, and Yoram Galli
Oren Kaplan (PhD, MBA), a clinical psychologist and business consultant, head of both the Department of Marketing and the MBA Management & Business Psychology Program, The College of Management, Israel. A member of Ofek*.
Silvia Silberman (MA), psychologist, psychotherapist, group and organizational consultant; lecturer, Schechter Institute; member of Ofek* and OPUS.
Rinat Alon (MA), a clinical psychologist and organizational consultant, member of Ofek*.
Yoram Galli (MEI), OD consultant, team coach, trainer and lecturer; Managing Director of CREATEAMS; Chaiman of SFiO, The institute for Solutions Focus in Organization; Board member of Ofek*.
* Ofek - The Israeli Society for the Study of Group and Organizational Processes.
The authors of this article presented a paper on this study at the Annual Conference of OPUS, London, 19-20 November 2004
This research was executed with the support of the research unit of the School of Business, The College of Management, Rishon LeZion, Israel.
This research was performed in cooperation with the ‘Ofek' Organisation, operating activities in Israel in the spirit of the Group Relations model.
This article examines the psychological characteristics of the road-driving phenomenon, using Group Relations thinking to examine how psychoanalytic and systemic principles might explain hidden aspects of the phenomenon. The data was collected from a group, and individual interviews and their results were analysed qualitatively. Results suggest that many aspects of road driving can be explained in terms of unconscious processes. Relating to these processes more extensively and openly might increase the effectiveness of safe driving campaigns and enhance the general quality of life experienced by road users.
driving, behaviour, psychology, Group Relations, workshop, unconscious
This study focuses on the psychological aspects of driving from a psychoanalytical-systemic point of view. It is based on the assumption that driving is not just the functional operation of a car by its driver, but often represents the conduct of the individual in the external environment. In fact, the perils and opportunities associated with ‘out there' can be played out, as can external and internal aggression, as along with the conflicts with which the individual happens to be dealing. In this context, driving could be used as a microcosm, a human laboratory for gaining a deeper understanding of personality and human tendencies in an authentic and profound manner. The collective presence of drivers and cars on the road might serve as an analogy of life in society and of the interactions among people and cultures. The group process by means of which this study was conducted allowed various experiences of the individual in society to be addressed, in this specific case the experience and phenomenon of road driving.
A number of writers have used the relation of behaviour on the road to various psychological factors. For example, when conducting research among students, Dahlen (2005) found that impulsiveness, boredom or the need for thrills can presage an increase in dangerous driving, the risk of accidents and manifestations of anger. Marsh and Collett (1987) maintain that a car, besides providing mobility, fulfils many psychological functions. These could be anything from a status symbol to a boost to the owner's self image to ‘a surrogate womb or...a means of self-expression, escape, romance and thrill.
Much has been written on the phenomenon of ‘road rage'. Accidents are violent events, and aggressive behaviour on the road is fairly frequent. Sharkin (2004), for example, claims that, when there are more drivers on a road of insufficient capacity, there is an increased probability of ‘road rage' and expressions of frustration, and he provides a review of the main factors contributing to irritable and aggressive driving. Parkinson (2001) claims that that people tend to express anger much more readily while driving than when engaged in other activities.
Currently there is increasing interest in the mental aspects of driving. However, even though writers generally perceive the essential facts, their explanations remain limited. Why do people drive as they do? What motivates them? What makes their behaviour behind the wheel so different from their everyday behaviour? It is common knowledge, for example, that a mental phenomenon like sensation-seeking affects drivers and exacerbates the risk of accidents. However, there has been very little reference to the deep psychological aspects of this phenomenon. Perhaps identification of the obvious causes of traffic accidents has been unsuccessful in eliminating the phenomenon because the actual reasons exist below the surface and have yet to be uncovered. These would be the unconscious facets of the psyche that relate to human nature in general and to driving a vehicle in particular. The purpose of this article is to deepen and expand our understanding of the motivations of drivers' behaviour from a psychoanalytical- systemic perspective.
The Group Relations model and understanding the driving phenomenon
The conceptualisation that interweaves psychoanalytical and systemic theories enables us to understand social and group dynamics in relation to the system as a whole, and, at the same time, to include emotional, unconscious group dynamics. It seemed appropriate to attempt applying this to the idea of driving behaviour as a social phenomenon.
This study attempts to integrate the theory, perception and methodology activated by the Group Relations model and the phenomenon of driving. The implementation took place on at least two bases. The first was the assumption that there are unconscious factors in any human activity, so it followed that they would also exist in road driving. The second was the use of a qualitative approach to exploring these factors, thereby generating an enhanced awareness of their existence (assuming that such awareness could eventually contribute to a better quality of life for the individual, the group and society).
Taking into account the principles of the Group Relations model, we formulated two questions relating to behaviour on the road:
Psychoanalytical question: What are the unconscious factors affecting human behaviour, both individual and collective, on the road? This question is derived from psychoanalytic theory claiming that, in any human behaviour, there are unconscious elements. What must be considered, therefore, is whether driving and other forms of presence on the road are solely for the purpose of transport, or whether they also fulfil other desires and fantasies like conquest and excitement, and serve as a means of expressing other, unconscious drives.
The ‘Group Relations' question: This question integrates psychoanalytical and systemic thought. Even a random collection of drivers on the road can be regarded as a ‘group'. We should therefore ask what the characteristics of this group are, and how they serve or harm the ‘members' as individuals and/or society in general.
The methodology is based on the principles of the Group Relations model (e.g. the Basic Assumption of Bion, 1961) and assumes that a small group of people, such as one generated in a workshop, can be used as a sample to study the perception and processes of a group of drivers on the road.
Collection of data was based on three sources of information. The primary source was a workshop. Participants were located by means of notices on the campus notice boards announcing a psychodynamic workshop on driving. Some applications came from students on the campus and others from people who had heard about the workshop from students. Of the 20 interested applicants, 12 registered and 10 actually arrived at the workshop. They were comprised of six men and four women, six of whom were in the 30-40 age group, two in the 40-50 age group and two in the 50-60 group. Five had permanent jobs: they were a lawyer, a driving instructor, a lecturer, a counsellor and a company manager. The remaining five were students in the college. All of them were drivers. The workshop took place on the campus throughout a complete working day, from 9h00-16h00. There were two facilitators and two observers, who documented the workshop process. As a small token acknowledging their participation, the participants were given a voucher for the College bookshop.
The core of the workshop was a discussion in two small groups and a plenary. The sessions focused on the participants' feelings, thoughts, and images while talking about driving and travelling on the road, and on the group dynamics as they emerged in the ‘here and now'. Dynamics like this are activated, not according to instructions, but by free association, depending on the flow of the discussion and what the participants want. This is a typical process in psychodynamic workshops.
While the workshop was in progress, an additional team of five facilitators carried out a series of personal interviews around the campus. They interviewed 25 students, administration staff members and academic staff. Each interview took about 20 minutes. Interviews were conducted according to the Laddering Method, a process designed to generate a gradual development of associations leading the interviewee to proceed from the more concrete views on driving to general values. The interview began with the question, ‘What does driving mean to you?' and each answer was then further developed to its deeper significance (‘And what does that say about you?'). In this way, it was possible to progress, by means of free association, from the concrete fact that driving means when travelling from one place to another, to an interior value like independence and the need for control over life.
An additional and substantial source of data was a half-day preparation workshop for the staff involved in the workshop. This took place approximately a month prior to the main workshop. This earlier session was also based on an experiential format. Ten psychology professionals participated, while an additional professional acted as observer. This workshop had a dual purpose: on the one hand, it prepared the team for the activities of the main workshop, so it included training the facilitators, observers, and reviewers; on the other hand, it produced a collection of raw material that would benefit the research process. It was assumed that a skilled team, competent in group and psychological dynamics, would produce significant qualitative raw material favourable to the development of process-based insights into the phenomenon of driving on the road.
Result analysis methodology
All the abovementioned processes were documented in writing by the project team, and this was used later on for the content analysis of the process. By the end of the research period, there were hundreds of pages of raw material to be processed. The results were analysed qualitatively, by content clusters (content categories). The decision to define a cluster was taken because contents relevant to this cluster were repeated in all the processes of the study. The ideas expressed in the raw data were extracted and grouped into themes in the traditional process of the grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This approach generates emic understandings of the world, focused on making implicit belief systems explicit. It should be stressed that qualitative research emphasises the subjective interpretation that people attribute to their social reality, so it is essential to be familiar with the context in which something is written if it is to be accorded a valid interpretation. This is also the generally accepted way of analysing content that has not been obtained in a quantitative mode. In the present case, location of clusters was based on themes from the text and the interpretation of these themes according to central terms in both psychoanalytical theory and the Group Relations model.
Results and discussion
The findings of the contents analysis according to the defined clusters are as follows.
Parallel processes between the workshop group and a group of drivers on the road
On the road, there are different makes of cars, different driving styles and a heterogeneous mass of people flowing with, or obstructing, traffic; the members of the workshop differed in the same way. Participants in the group explained various motivations for participation: some of them wanted to get to know themselves better as drivers, while others expressed the wish to teach others by imparting their own experiences. One of the participants described her hope for ‘self healing' from her 'wild driving', and another participant had come principally to learn about group dynamics.
The group members quickly formed inter-personal relationships. From the beginning it was clear that participants would be taking part in the group process in individual ways. Some assumed a more prominent role, speaking and responding freely, while others were more passive.
They also assumed different group functions. For example, one participant assumed the role of ‘silence breaker', while another became the ‘facilitator's aide'. Certain participants demonstrated obvious empathy and listening skills, while others interrupted and behaved in an aggressive, domineering manner.
Clearly, there was a definite similarity between the group process in the workshop venue and parallel processes seen daily on the road outside. The expanse of road and the time spent on it, much like the room and session times of the workshop, were noted as collective fixed resources available to the group as a whole. Hence a driver who successfully overtook another, going ahead faster than others, might be perceived by himself and others to be gaining a larger cut of the collective resources.
At the same time there was a tendency to ignore sharing in the resources, probably to avoid feeling guilty about making ‘excessive use' of them. The workshop participants and road drivers alike perceived that the primary regulator of behaviour on the road was the law (or the group facilitator in the workshop), and that the purpose of the law was to limit rather than assist everyone in maximising their utilisation of common resources. Because of this, behaviour within the boundaries of the law was meticulous while somebody was under observation by police officers. However, this did not last long, because the purpose was merely to avoid punishment, not to make driving less onerous for others sharing the road. (For instance, when the facilitator left the room for a few minutes, her group stopped functioning and returned to the task only after the leader had returned. They admitted feeling embarrassed about this, but nevertheless it recurred later.)
Parallel processes between the interior of the car and the interior of the self.
The participants perceived entering a vehicle to be like entering a protected armoured space, where there was a feeling of power, sometimes the sensation of being an invisible observer. A diverse emotional life took place within this private space: one could swear with explosive aggression, listen to music at full volume, sing in a loud voice and enjoy oneself, as well as unload the hardships of life aggressively and with excitement. There was also a sense of freedom - in that the route could be chosen without having to consider others; or else one could observe while remaining unobserved, since the lower body was hidden from view. Nevertheless, the group said that, at other times, anxiety, and the sense of risk and helplessness predominated as far as others, potential inflictors of injury, were concerned. Perhaps this was why so many fantasies were violent, characterised by the desire both to punish others physically for occupying space and to invade more space themselves (‘too much road'). This desire was accompanied by the fear of transforming this into a reality. For some of the participants, driving was a walk on the edge of an abyss, and was dangerous, like a thin cord separating life and death.
It appears that travelling from place to place is perceived as a stay in a transitional space (Winnicott, 1971), a subjective area of experience, located between fantasy and reality (as in a film, for example). There are two ways of looking at this.
The first view is that one might wish to curtail the stay in the transitional space (the road) to escape being with oneself in some significant way, or to avoid wasting time. These were perceived as aspects of the achievement-oriented race against time prevalent in Western culture. In other words, it was seen as an aspiration to an important but vague and undefined goal that ought to be achieved as quickly as possible. Increasing one's driving speed was thus comparable to the life race in modern society, like a manic protection against the anxiety about extinction and death that everyone harbours, so that it becomes a guard against mortality.
The second view, for which there was a great deal of evidence, was that people thought of and referred to the transitional space of the car as an opportunity for tranquillity or for processing daily experiences in a quiet, calm place, away from the tumult of the outside world. Indeed, in many contexts, the experience of driving has been described as the experience of an infant in the womb; it is contained, calm and protected. For example, the rhythmic movements of the car were described as enabling this regression and tranquillity. The experience of calm driving has been described as a state of homeostasis, with the driver immersed in his inner world, feeling pleasantly at ease. All he asks is not to be disturbed by traffic congestion, other drivers or policemen, and preferably not by disturbing thoughts of perils lurking along the way. Should another driver enter his domain, threatening danger or accident, or should his thoughts turn to the idea of potential danger, homeostasis deserts him, and he becomes mentally vulnerable. The realisation that he can hurt or be hurt, kill or be killed, supersedes his sense of serenity and calm. Just as babies react when a disruptive experience continually recurs, a driver becomes irate and aggressive, and cannot easily be calmed and comforted.
The schizoid experience and illusion was described by Guntrip (1969) as the tendency to make do with the self alone and to disengage from the human environment in order to protect oneself from the anxiety aroused by dealing with real people. Within the first few minutes of the workshop, the issues of anonymity on the road and the limited awareness of the existence of ‘real people' in cars were mentioned. The tendency to refer to the ‘Toyota that cut me off', or the ‘Mazda that almost caused an accident', rather than the actual drivers of these cars reflected the fact that, while we are driving, contact with the world around us is characterised by narrow reference and relatedness, rather than by the opportunity for creating deeper and more genuine relationships. One of the participants said that when we are driving anonymity disappears once a moment of humanity has been disclosed from behind the iron cast of the other car.
The idea of driving ‘automatically' while immersed in the self sounded familiar to all participants. However, the occasional personal moment was evidenced in many associations: ‘I smiled at him, asking him to let me into his lane', or ‘We got out of the car and started arguing about whose fault it was'. The participants expressed the feeling that, inside the car, the driver feels alone and isolated, almost as if he were playing a computer game. The sensation is one of false invulnerability, because drivers are either those who have already experienced the shattering of illusion by having been in an accident, or those who are yet to experience this. Outside, as in the computer game, there is a virtual environment in which we cruise, up to the point when the monitor flashes ‘game over'. So we become aware of our actual vulnerability only when the sense of insecurity or possibility of harm, real or imaginary, becomes more immediate. The driver emerges from his inner world more aware of the external factors that endanger both him and other drivers, who also endanger others and themselves. This is when the schizoid illusion is shattered.
Driving as a way of expressing drives: aggression and sex
Many associations expressed by the participants contained themes of aggression and sex. For example, a participant described the experience of riding a motorcycle at a speed of 200 km/h as resembling an orgasm. Another free-association symbol to do with the motorcycle was that of a ‘long hot instrument located between the legs galloping forward'. It seems, therefore, that driving enables displacement of sexual behaviour and experience, thus becoming a personal internal phenomenon. This is completely unlike the primary purpose of riding in the car, which is, practically speaking, technical conveyance from one place to another. During the discussion, fantasies surfaced of reaching sexual arousal by means of playing rhythmic music very loudly, gesticulating, swearing, and using wild language, such as ‘hitting the bumper of the slow woman who is holding everyone up'. We have already described the feeling, when driving, of being an ‘invisible observer', with one's lower, sexual body hidden by the body of the car. This means that it would be possible to drive naked, in terms of exposing the body parts, but also the personality parts, that cannot ordinarily be exposed. On the other hand, an older participant claimed that his driving had become entirely instrumental, a means of transportation alone, much like sexual relations, which do not excite him today as much as they did when he was younger.
Driving was described in many different ways within the context of aggression. For example, it was a mechanism of displacement (‘releasing the nervous tension that had built up all day'), a response to frustration, a way of expressing aggressive parts of me, a chance to manage, by means of the nature of my driving and the model of the car I drive, a battle of control over my honour and position (‘I don't want to ask anyone, I just do'), and so on. Some participants experienced inner aggressions on the road as frightening, threatening, or out of control. Even as a passenger, it was possible to express aggression, such as shouting at the driver, or feeling unprotected in public transport.
Aggression was often perceived as an unpleasant and ego-dystonic impulse (‘the wild bug'), or even as a dissociative experience (‘The other within me is misbehaving'). Another aspect of aggression was the feeling that, as time goes on, we need more and more stimulation to feel psychological and physical arousal in response to an event on the road. Being behind the wheel provides an experience or illusion of protection, power, strength and invulnerability. This activates a split defence mechanism, in that the participants were referring, in the main, to aggression and horror ‘out there' rather than within themselves, speaking of traffic jams, insults (‘retarded driver'), and a sense of danger (‘crazy drivers', ‘madness is raging out there'). The road is a place where one alternates between the need to concede to others, to allow for their rights and needs, and the need not to be a ‘pushover', not to feel weak. During the group debate, the helplessness of being in conflict with the outside was demonstrated in expressions like: ‘a desire to arrive safely at one's destination', ‘in one piece' (physically, mentally, vehicle intact), or ‘fear of driving in the dark'. The opposite experience was indicated in expressions of feeling like: ‘after relinquishing the wheel and ending one's drive, there is the chance of a clear head and the opportunity for fun, freedom and rest'.
Additional descriptions of aggression and the consequent anxiety were revealed in the following: Anxiety about the well-being of children: it is easier for participants to project their concern onto children than onto themselves or other adult drivers on the road; The struggle to learn to drive and purchase a vehicle as an expression of occupying space: ‘driving was one of the first things I fought over in my marriage', ‘I taught myself to drive'; Violent fantasies: the desire to hurt others (together with the fear of this impulse), but also the fear of being hurt by others, whether deliberately or unintentionally; The suicidal fantasy of self mutilation on the road: ‘I wouldn't have minded dying... I let the road decide for me whether I should live'.
Inner aggression is sometimes all-encompassing, and supersedes any possibility of expressing other emotions and impulses. During the group process, parallel themes emerged regarding ‘who lets whom speak and enter their lane'; ‘who firmly protects his/her territory and does not allow anyone to intrude on what they are saying / their space', and so forth. The borderline between illegitimate aggression and assertiveness as a positive trait was not always evident.
Control or lack of control
The dichotomy between control and lack of control was already apparent in self-presentation by the group members, who presented themselves in terms of the accidents they had had ('lack of control', 'non-optimal control'), and the number of driving tests they had undergone before obtaining their drivers' licenses. In this way, a distinction between group members as drivers was created, depending on their ability to control a car. A female participant, when referring to another group member, said: ‘I am impressed by his control of the car'. Control was also expressed in the denial or control of feelings: a good driver was considered to be an unemotional driver who would not take revenge for being pushed off the road.
The question of how much ‘I control' the car as opposed to external reality, which I have no way of dictating with any certainty, emerged in numerous statements by the group: ‘I control my actions, for example, putting safety belts on the children, but I do not control the actions of others, who might injure me', ‘it is enough that one crazy person could come along and make a mistake', ‘informational campaigns are no use', ‘other people are imposed upon me - they are a given over which I have no control', ‘a large vehicle pushing in, forcing my small car onto the pavement, makes me so angry that I lose control', ‘young drivers might lose control quicker than veteran drivers'.
The participants expressed the necessity for regaining composure as soon as possible after losing control. The fantasy developed of being independent of others, to show absolute independence in making decisions on the road, sometimes to the extent of denying reality. Some considered themselves, in the light of this, to be sufficiently balanced and controlled to have both a ‘light foot on the accelerator' as well as ‘enough experience and ability to avoid disaster'.
Encountering boundaries and laws - external and internal
Dealing with authority: the content of the discussions revealed an intense yearning for an external and powerful authority, one that would ‘put things in order', a large, omnipotent and protective father figure that would appear in the form of a policeman, a speed trap, or informative signs. In the face of authority, the driver became a young child in need of a parental figure to organise the world for him, to banish bad drivers from the road and to punish them (and, in the workshop processes, explain the purpose of being in the workshop, reduce uncertainty and organise the group experience). There was frustration and helplessness among the participants because of the absence of authority: ‘Information campaigns are useless', ‘I am annoyed that they didn't carry out the decision to divert large vehicles onto a bypass road'. Participants blamed the education system for the fact that there is no ‘someone' defending and protecting the driver; and there is no security. It should be noted that, parallel to the yearning for authority, there was also significant apprehension of it and its considerable power. The fines levied and points deducted for traffic violations led to a sequence of associations like the meaninglessness of life, lifelessness, a cemetery, death, and the end.
Internal boundaries: To what extent do I control myself and how much external control do I need? To what extent would I obey traffic lights and external signs, and what distance would I maintain between my vehicle and another, prompted by my internal signs? In this context, the sense of control is important: ‘I can drink a certain amount of alcohol, but I know my limitations, and I take responsibility for my actions'. On the one hand, there is conflict between being impulsive, disobeying internal and external boundaries or ‘doing things I might regret later', and, on the other hand, keeping everything bottled up inside and being in complete self-control, until the stress ‘gives me an ulcer'.
The significance of the law: The status of laws is ambiguous. Sometimes they are perceived merely as recommendations, while at other times they are the enemy we would like to attack. Sometimes the law is the other with whom we are grappling. There are state laws, but the most common laws are social norms and personal laws: ‘I have developed and/or adopted myself'. Participants were asked the question: When are laws merely a recommendation and when do they become mandatory, so that it is clear to everyone that they must be obeyed? Issuing from this question of law and boundaries on the road was the participants' uncertainty as to how to drive and behave when faced with the external boundaries of various activities like work, debt, prior commitments, deadlines, projects or submissions.
The participants acknowledged that in other areas of their lives they would not break the law. For instance, they would not steal, even if nobody was watching. But when it comes to the road they are ready to violate the law, the only obstacle being the physical presence of a representative of the law, such as a police officer. There was also a debate about the fact that breaking traffic laws does not legally lead to ‘disgrace' in terms of criminal law. Perhaps this legal phrasing portrays a message to the effect that breaking certain traffic laws does not actually threaten either the individual's self-esteem or others' opinion of him in the way that a reprehensible violation of other laws might do.
This phenomenon can be interpreted by relating to the group or crowd nature of drivers on the road, which might result in regression and lack of inhibition. Le Bon (1895), whose writing inspired the ideas of Freud and Bion on group and crowd behaviour, claimed that people's personal characteristics become blurred when they are in a group context, and their uniqueness disappears. This allows the collective unconscious of a group to manifest. When in a group, the individual experiences a power that allows him to surrender to drives he would restrain were he alone. In a crowd situation, the individual may lose sight of his conscience and the sense of responsibility arising from social anxiety. The regressive behaviour of normally law-abiding citizens on the road and their criminal acts could be explained, at least partially, in terms of Le Bon's perception of the individual in a group.
Common defence mechanisms relating to driving
Following is a brief list of driving defence mechanisms that were mentioned during the workshop, some of which have been cited above in other contexts:
Denial: This is to ignore danger, thinking ‘It won't happen to me'. Participants suggested that, when coping with the fear and worry associated with driving, one should ‘let things go, not get stuck on them', ‘not let emotions take over', or ‘simply neutralise things'. Denial of human vulnerability, lack of control and the existential uncertainties accompanying driving were evident
Projection: ‘Large cars think they can do as they please'. The rationale underlying this mechanism is that aggression must be attributed to the other, the adversary, not to me.
Rationalisation: This mechanism refers to offering illogical arguments in the guise of a rational explanation. For example, ‘I must drive in this way because I am late and because I am a better driver than everyone else'.
Intellectualisation: During the workshop, a theoretical and emotionally detached discussion sometimes developed concerning the ‘dangers of the road as equivalent to the process of peace and war', or a debate about the cultural dimension of driving, such as ‘in Europe as opposed to the United States...', or a conversation about statistics for traffic accidents. Discussions like these were really to avoid another more profound and emotional one that would have evoked anxiety.
Split: This means categorising life in terms of black and white, good and bad. It also means help in coping with a complex reality (‘the evil in me, the goodness of the enemy') and the difficulty of experiencing ambivalent and contradictory emotions, ideas, and feelings simultaneously. As far as driving is concerned, we can see this in instances like the thought pattern that says, ‘I am the good driver', while the others are ‘bad, annoying, dangerous' drivers. For example, female interviewees brought up associations between travelling, spaces and fun, at the same time referring to insults or swearing by other drivers, war, wild beasts and mad drivers. Even so, when asked to broaden their associations, they usually chose to expand the issue of space, freedom and ‘wanting to get home safely', and were unable to relate to other kinds of images that they had mentioned earlier (denial).
The split also exists in references to gender differences: women were portrayed as ‘gatherers' and men as ‘hunters'. On the road, it was said, for instance, that a woman ‘allows herself to go to other, more pleasant locations, as opposed to the man using the road for his needs, to get from place to place'. For female drivers there is also a division between ‘traditional' gender roles (smiling at a driver so that he will give way) and novel femininity (driving fast, overtaking another driver when alone).
Manic mechanisms: These are patterns that intensify denial and induce a sensation of omnipotence and invulnerability, for example, playing loud music, putting one's foot down on the accelerator, thinking ‘I am the greatest driver', while ignoring the risk involved. Listening to music while driving is associated with joy, pleasure, happiness and exaltation. Sometimes supernatural thought is integrated into the conversation, or the illusion of control: ‘I can drink a certain amount of alcohol, but if I do so and so (for instance, draw up scenarios in my mind), I will prevent the negative effects of the alcohol.' Superstitions also affect the manner of driving and one's selection of driving route.
Sublimation: This mechanism refers mostly to the expression of aggression in socially acceptable ways. Driving itself is an acceptable behaviour (more than simply violent behaviour per se), so putting one's foot down on the accelerator and speeding away (within the limits of law and caution) might satisfy violent urges in a legitimate way. This, of course, might take the driver to the point of self-endangerment, when more primitive defence mechanisms enter the equation, such as splitting, denial and projection.
Summary of the psychoanalytical research question
The psychoanalytical research question is based on a theory that says a significant number of human thoughts and motives are unconscious. Likewise, driving or being on the road is not only for the purposes of mobility but includes many unconscious elements. Indeed, the raw material in the present study demonstrated that driving a car, and the car itself as an object, can be instrumental in realising fantasies, as well as in expressing unconscious needs and various anxieties. Freud's psychoanalytical theory includes a number of fundamental elements, all of them present in some form in the results section of the study.
The personality, according to the Freudian structural approach, consists of the id, the ego and the superego, which are activated constantly in inter-dynamics, which can also be seen on the road. For example, we have described the way in which an individual expresses id urges of aggression and sex through driving, but also activates the superego to restrain these urges, mostly by prompting anxiety. This functions as the introverted punishment, beyond the threat of law and the police, both of which constitute external punishment, not necessarily the more intimidating one. Driving a car takes place in the dynamic between the id and superego, while, in between, the ego attempts to navigate the right path by means of the system of defence mechanisms described above.
The personality, according to a Freudian topographic approach, differentiates between conscious and unconscious. Freud claimed that most parts of the psyche are located below the surface, unconscious, but still affecting the life of the individual in fundamental ways. The raw material demonstrated the extent to which the unconscious component controls the behaviour of the individual on the road.
Summary of the Group Relations research question
The main assumption in the present study was that drivers on the road function as a group and that a small group of people like the one in the workshop could be a resource representative of the perception and processes of a group of drivers on the road, and that this systemic activity is characterised by psychoanalytical components. One of the dominant components of any group is the leader or facilitator. And, indeed, on the road, as well as in the workshop, there is a leader or facilitator in the shape of the police officer representing the law. Throughout the workshop, parallel processes pertaining to the group in the room and the group on the road predominated. For example, it seemed that drivers consider the law (the group facilitator) as a central regulator of behaviour on the road. This regulator's purpose was to limit them, whereas, from a rational perspective, it should have been the opposite - that the law is supposed to protect one from danger.
Another recurring central variable in the context of the Group Relations model was the aggression surfacing in the group/crowd sitting in a traffic jam and on the road in general. Questions concerning aggressiveness and assertiveness were repeatedly raised in the group process within the workshop as well. This theme frequently emerges in Freud's writing, with the belief that, in a crowd, the personal characteristics of the individual are blurred, as is his/her individuality. Freud claims that being in a crowd grants the individual a sense of power that allows him to give in to his impulses, which, had he been alone, he would have restrained. Under these circumstances the individual might lose his sense of conscience and responsibility, which originally stem from social anxiety. This might explain why people who are law-abiding when not driving in their cars become unruly outlaws when driving. The schizoid experience of anonymity on the road and the limited awareness of the existence of ‘real people' while driving generate an attitude of ‘relatedness' regarding other drivers, rather than ‘relationships'. This suggests stereotypical perceptions about others, rather than an actual understanding of them and their needs. So drivers on the road do not belong to a unified homogeneous group, which might be the key reason that such a group does not operate in harmony with the idea of a safer, more peaceful drive.
Some insights into the choice of current methodology
The attempt to use psychodynamic thought to address social problems in general, and, more specifically, the driving phenomenon, is innovative. This probably raises questions as to its validity on the one hand, and its probable applications for future research and other implementations on the other.
The group process started with a preliminary workshop for the project staff. Its overt primary task was to enable them to practise observations and become accustomed to the unusual concept of psychodynamic work on the theme of driving. However, they doubted that inviting a group of drivers to talk about driving would result in productive group work, suspecting instead that it would prove meaningless. The preliminary work with the staff was probably a way of reducing this anxiety. In fact the experience resulted in a great many insights on the subject, increasing staff confidence in the appropriateness of the proposed methodology.
It was quite obvious, from the start of the drivers' group session, that this methodology was viable. The introduction of the subject in the group immediately prompted a flood of associations and personal experiences, enabling both staff and participants to practise the model in terms of ‘here and now', and ‘there and then'. The staff felt, from the experience of their own training workshop, and the driver-participants' workshop, that the notion of ‘parallel processes' between the group inside the workshop room and the group of drivers on the road was natural; conscious and unconscious themes were expressed during the process, and could be elaborated on and discussed, perhaps more easily than in the context of regular psychodynamic work. It seems that the group process here and now inspired associations with processes that occurred on the road there and then, and the discussion about themes of road driving there and then elicited associations and actions on the here and now level.
Regarding the driver-participants' cooperation using the methodology, we cannot ignore the fact that the participants chose to join this process knowing at least something of its nature. They were relatively well educated and were probably more self aware than members of the general population. These factors definitely went towards the success of the workshop, but they could also have cast doubt on the validity of the workshop as far as the more general population was concerned. Indeed, there are still questions as to what extent drivers on the road really constitute a group, and to what extent the participants in the workshop represented the population of drivers and driver groups. These questions cannot be adequately answered in the current study, but should be explored later, using larger and more representative samples from the population. Future research should focus on evaluating the effectiveness of such methodology in changing the attitudes and behaviours of drivers on the road. However, at least during the present process, we were surprised at how openly and naturally participants were prepared to share and discuss the private and sensitive fantasies like aggression and sexuality, associated with behaviour on the road, as discussed above. Both the semantic content and the close participation of staff and participants in the workshop process made them increasingly aware of the relatedness of drivers on the road. It was expressed in references to acts of competition, dangerous overtaking, requests for a driver to evacuate or claim a spot, and the paranoid feeling that the other ‘tries to take advantage or steal my possession'. But there was also the development from these positions and projections into relationships and encounters with the others. Most importantly, there was the opportunity of discussing all these notions and processes in the group work context.
Finally, the methodology was chosen also against an institutional and political backdrop. The project was financed by the research unit of a College Business School. The workshop itself was the joint venture of this research unit and an association that operates group relations activities. The combined contribution of the two organisations seemed very natural at the beginning but only during the preliminary workshop did the inter-organisational unconscious process become apparent. It evinced themes like ‘Who has the money/power to make the project a reality? (the Business School), and ‘Who has the professional authority to do this?' (a Tavistock-oriented organisation). This process filtered into the staff workshop attended by personnel from both organisations, through such things as competition, anxiety about personal competence to function as consultant to the process and lack of mutual acknowledgement by both organisations of the other's contribution to the process. Possibly, the writing process and publication of the present paper have brought some mutual acknowledgement of the contributions by each organisation in this join venture.
Conclusion and application
Driving is much more than the mere instrumental direction and operation of a vehicle. It is a mental experience and expression. Throughout the process described in this article, we have referred to driving as analogous to life in a most comprehensive manner. Driving a car, in many cases, represents the conduct of the individual in the world and the external environment, facing the dangers and opportunities out there, external and internal aggression and the conflicts with which s/he is dealing. In this context, driving can serve as a microcosm, a human laboratory, for a deeper understanding of personality and human tendencies in an authentic and profound manner.
The future challenge would be to assemble the understandings and realisations that emerged during the process of this current research, and to transform them into a feasible tool to be applied to larger groups of citizens and individuals in the population, in order to improve the quality of life on the road, as well as the personal quality of life of everyone in society.
Conscious and unconscious psychological factors operate in any human environment. The common view of driving is that it is instrumental in terms of both instructing learners about proper driving and preventing traffic accidents. Driving instructors are concerned primarily with the correct understanding of traffic signs and symbols, obeying the law, and other cognitive aspects of driving. Most accident prevention campaigns focus on intimidation, that is, the consequences of not complying with the law and the ensuing potential damages to both body and pocket. Very little attention is given to the deeper mental aspects expressed in driving.
The applications that have emerged from the present study can be viewed on two levels. The first is the use of knowledge about managing the road and drivers in a more effective manner. The second is the use of the workshop method in order to ‘treat' drivers and other users of the road. The primary task at both levels is, of course, accident prevention and the enhancement of road safety.
As far as the first level is concerned, the knowledge revealed in the present study is significant for both academic and practical purposes like decision making, policy formulation and conducting transportation projects. From the strategic point of view, there is, in the field of consumer behaviour and other commercial fields, an extensive use of the psychological and emotional understanding of the consumer. No marketing or advertising manger would risk ignoring these when making decisions about the positioning of a brand and its advertising, or in any other important business transaction. Drivers are undoubtedly the consumers of the road. They use cars and roads as they do any other services and products. This means that their psychological characteristics must be included in any managerial decision in this field. From the tactical point of view, this knowledge may supply possibilities and ideas for campaigns against accidents and for safer driving. Any of the content clusters analysed here could provide direct themes for such campaigns. For example, breaking the schizoid illusion and reducing the distorting influence of defence mechanisms are both important in generating awareness and reducing aggressive behaviour on the road.
The second level is not so much in the content of the workshop but rather in its process. At the start of the current study, we believed there might be a genuine difficulty in connecting participants with the experience of driving as a domain that expressed a profound mental dimension. But after a few minutes' work in each of the formations described above, there emerged a clear understanding that daily, routine driving is a meaningful and profound psychological experience for both the driver and the passenger that is part of their mental world. Referring to driving as a psychological experience enables an important connection with people's inner world and might generate concomitant changes in both their quality of mental life and the quality of their driving on the road. This would consequently contribute to an improvement in the quality of life for society in general.
The present study and the workshop in which it was conducted generated a method of enhancement of self and social awareness relating to behaviour on the road. Different institutes in our context have already expressed interest in this method, including the Ministry of Transport, the military, and some NGOs dealing with accident prevention. It seems that such workshops could be operated for people who wish to develop better awareness of themselves and their own behaviour. In a more general sense, workshops could be operated by organisations wishing to train their workers or subsystems in safer driving, both as a practical objective for their organisation and for the sake of society as a whole. Such a process could also become the contribution by organisations that take their social responsibility seriously.
The psychodynamic theory and approach are based on the belief that more developed human awareness results, in the long term, in a higher quality of life and improved mental strength.
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