Driving as a personality inventory

Posted by on Jun 14, 2019

Road rage or personality flaw?

When I was a senior in high school, I had my wisdom teeth out. They had come in fully, with room and no problems, but that was what we did back then, take them out no matter what. It was an easy extraction, simply pulling four teeth at my dentist’s office. I drove myself there and home, probably a mistake looking back but when you’re seventeen… Anyway, I was on my way home and feeling a little groggy as I sat at a red light. I had enough cotton rolls and swelling in my mouth to do a really good Godfather impression. You know how you can feel when the person in the car next to you is looking at you, well I had that feeling and so I looked over. It was a woman alone in her car and she had a look of horror on her face. Her eyes were wide, her forehead crinkled, and her mouth open as she stared at me. Not really knowing what was scaring her, I smiled out of reflex. Without being able to hear it, I could see that she screamed and then grabbed the wheel and raced off, going through the red light, thankfully without incident. Stunned and a bit stupid from the procedure, I looked around to see what she was reacting to. As my head went left and then right, I glanced in the rearview mirror and the culprit was revealed. Blood was trailing down from both corners of my mouth and dripping off my chin onto my sweatshirt, leaving two big blood stains. I smiled from the hilarity and saw the blood was in between my teeth, too, making me look like a vampire. My entire mouth was still so numb from the Novocaine that I couldn’t feel the blood leaking out of it. As the light turned green, I giggled the rest of the way home, wishing I could explain to this poor woman my appearance. All I could do was hope she recovered, got home safely, and saw the event as a great story to tell at dinner parties.

A funny story but perhaps not a good evaluation of this woman’s personality or maybe it is that her fight or flight response is definitely flight. Have you ever gotten in the car with someone you like and been instantly surprised or even horrified at the way they drive? Mild-mannered, kind, thoughtful, and sweet, they turn into the devil behind the wheel. It always surprises me when someone’s driving personality does not match their “normal” personality. A perpetual student of psychology, this constantly intrigues me. It’s like a Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde when someone is so incredibly different behind the wheel. But why? I like to use it as a litmus test as well as an information gathering event, knowing what comes out when someone drives will alert me to what might come out when they are under pressure.

When I started driving in the mid-eighties, it wasn’t the mayhem it is now. It was Southern California and the roads were far from crowded yet. Interestingly, I remember both of my parents as being generous and patient drivers. For as volatile as my mom could be outside of a car, she was never that when driving. Driving was a calm event and I don’t have one memory of her being nasty behind the wheel (I wonder if my sisters will call me and tell me I’m crazy when they read this!). Perhaps that was because the rush to get everywhere hadn’t become the central theme of transportation yet. The era was one of safety and driving was a luxury and to be enjoyed. Letting people in who needed to be in the same lane as you was common practice. Notice I didn’t call it “your lane”? That is precisely because it isn’t. I wonder how much of our irritation behind the wheel comes from that simple, incorrect wording? “Get out of MY lane!” The misconception of ownership is powerful and can be (or maybe often is) damaging. I heard a comedian do a bit on driving and who we become behind the wheel. He was copping to his bad behavior by describing the insults and names he flung at other drivers. The audience was laughing uncontrollably, as was I, and it was because of the identification of how many of us end up behaving behind the wheel. I am as guilty as the next person of flinging insults that only truck drivers should use (I wonder if this is where “swearing like a truck driver” came from—and sorry truck drivers for the stereotyping). Just like the comedian said, some of the things that come out of my mouth about a person that I do not know and have never met are embarrassing. He would hilariously ask how could he wish a horrific, tortuous death on someone who simply was driving the speed limit? It is true, we have evil thoughts of torture and death from inside the windows of our car. My Dr. Jeckyll can be incredibly ugly and admittedly, often takes me by surprise.

There are a couple of things that make anger and bad driving behavior endemic. One is culture. I don’t know where it began, maybe New York City (more stereotyping), but honking and yelling at each other from car to car is generally accepted. A “spirited” wave is pretty common and most of us could admit to this. The anonymity of driving leaves people without accountability so the risk for this behavior is super low. “Road rage” was all the rage a couple of decades ago but now it seems that we all just drive around rageful. The other explanation, and I think the deeper one, is the threat factor. When someone cuts you off or drives in a way that could ultimately be dangerous, it triggers your threat and survival response. A large majority of the time, it is a mental threat. In other words, how many times do you really get scared in the car, heart racing, legs shaking and numb, hands sweaty, and stomach flipping around? Not that often. But our minds get threatened quite a lot. Dangerous driving has great potential to harm and if you have ever been in a car accident, that is quite the trigger.

So, what do we do? Using driving to increase your self-awareness might sound stupid but it is actually pretty valuable. I definitely notice my rage-ability is influenced greatly by my mood when I get in the car. If I am in a rush, rage on. If I have had a tough day, rage on. If I am tired, rage on. You get the point. Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, said in a TED talk, “Our nature is to be context-dependent in our behavior.” Some impulses will come to the front in some circumstances, others in others, but all behavior has multiple levels of causality. What this means to me is that the world will continue to press down on me, but I ultimately get to choose how to respond to it. All this stuff about kindness may sound hokey but the science behind it is solid. When you are kind, you release a hormone called Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone. It changes how you feel immediately and backs down the stress hormones that make you feel badly. Knowing this can be annoying at times, but when I let someone in or make someone else’s drive a little easier, I start to feel better. I have practiced this more and more and it has become the rule as opposed to the exception now. I still have my days, but for the most part, I look for ways to be in this together on the road and it makes travel so much better.

Driving or traveling can have that magical, meditative quality to it that is special. My friend, Jill, calls it “windshield time.” Sometimes I will choose to drive somewhere just to have the alone time and relax into the hum of the road and the beauty out the window. City traffic makes driving slightly less enjoyable, but what if it could be less terrible if we were less terrible? We are all struggling in different ways and at different times, and so I try to remember that, especially when driving. Does personality change over your lifetime? That is a bigger question than we can answer right now, but what if you could manually have some impact on how yours gets expressed? If you don’t drive, lucky you, but I bet you engage in some kind of travel that can unravel your emotional state. Give it a try and see what happens, you might be pleasantly surprised to find a part of your personality that you can drive.