Dr. Tom Stafford (PhD Cognitive Neuroscience) writes about possible psychological underpinnings of motorist antipathy towards cyclists in his “Neurohacks” column for the BBC.
Something about cyclists seems to provoke fury in other road users.
This kind of sentiment would get people locked up if directed against an ethic minority or religion, but it seems to be fair game, in many people’s minds, when directed against cyclists. Why all the rage?
I’ve got a theory, of course. It’s not because cyclists are annoying. It isn’t even because we have a selective memory for that one stand-out annoying cyclist over the hundreds of boring, non-annoying ones (although that probably is a factor). No, my theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they think they offend the moral order.
I’ve occasionally commented that it doesn’t matter how much cyclists obey the rules of the road, a segment of the driving population will still dislike us because we’re different.
Stafford recalls a 2002 experiment demonstrating the social collapse that results because of the “free rider problem.” When somebody uses more than their fair share of a resource, we as humans innately want to punish the free riders.
How does this relate to why motorists hate cyclists? The key is in a detail from that classic 2002 paper. Did the players in this game sit there calmly calculating the odds, running game theory scenarios in their heads and reasoning about cost/benefit ratios? No, that wasn’t the immediate reason people fined players. They dished out fines because they were mad as hell. Fehr and Gachter, like the good behavioural experimenters they are, made sure to measure exactly how mad that was, by asking players to rate their anger on a scale of one to seven in reaction to various scenarios. When players were confronted with a free-rider, almost everyone put themselves at the upper end of the anger scale.
I know a significant number of cyclists who claim to never filter forward through traffic to avoid this taboo behavior. Passing a car or truck stuck in traffic violates this natural order in which the motorist is superior to the cyclist.