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The psychological explanation for summer road rage

Road rage may be a classic example of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, explains psychology professor Marc Wilson.

Ah, summer holidays. Looking for crabs in rock pools, fish and chips at Ngunguru, lazing around with a book. And a fantastic opportunity to witness dangerous driving in vivo. The standout example on our post-Christmas trip up to Whangārei was almost being rear-ended by a car that proceeded to tailgate and then overtake past the end of a passing lane, narrowly missing the median barrier.

Driving-related aggression is commonly known as road rage, and appears to have been increasing for the past few decades, with an accompanying surge in the number of viral videos of drivers leaping from their cars to take a swing at other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. In the Automobile Association’s quarterly surveys, about one in six motorists report having experienced road-rage-like incidents.

There are also more people on our roads, so it’s not really a surprise if we’re seeing more rage even if the “base rate” incidence (the number of people per 1000 who flip out) remains the same. Anecdotally, people’s lives are now busier than previously, so the many hours a week we spend at a standstill in traffic is a bigger rage catalyst than before.

But are some people more prone to rage than others? Before we head down this particular highway, let me be clear that there is probably no one-size-fits-all for driving-related aggression, and any incident will be a combination of person and context. By context, I mean that it doesn’t always take four hours to get from the North Shore to Whangārei, for example … Thanks, Christmas and New Year.

“Rage” is a potent word and encapsulates more than just run-of-the-mill annoyance. It also clearly signals that there is emotion involved. Indeed, road rage is an example of a failure to usefully regulate one’s (strong) emotions. The current edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t list road rage as a disorder in its own right, and nor should it, but it does cover problems that may manifest as road rage.

Regular road rage may be an extreme manifestation of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or IED, for example. The signs of IED are a repetitive pattern of impulsive and troublesome aggressive outbursts, two-thirds of which involve aggression directed at other people. Importantly, these outbursts are disproportionate to the triggering event or cause.

According to the United States National Institute of Mental Health, more than 7% of people would meet an IED diagnosis at some point in their lives, and only about a quarter of them seek and receive help to manage their aggression.

Consistent with other emotion-regulation challenges, IED has its roots in adolescence, when we’re learning how to manage our emotional lives. One way we do this is by learning from role models – parents, friends and other drivers. If your two-year-old starts shouting “arsehole” from the child seat, consider what you’re role modelling!

Young folk who show the “symptoms” of IED are also more likely to go on to develop other problems, including substance-abuse disorders (also a way of maladaptively handling your emotions), anxiety and depression. In short, anger is a natural and important emotion, but how you manage your anger is the key to whether there’s a problem or not. Again, not every example of dodgy or aggressive driving you witness is a sign of disorder.

In 2017, AA-surveyed members said that the top three annoyances on the roads were red-light running, drivers in the slow lane speeding up at passing lanes, and tailgating. I imagine that all of us have done these things at some time or other, and although I’m sure we can find excuses, the reasons aren’t apparent to the person behind us.

So, for now, take a deep breath and imagine the gratification of seeing a police officer pull over the idiot who burnt past you five minutes ago.

This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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