Cyclists as free loading cheaters

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.

Read Tom Stafford’s article in BBC Neurohacks: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers. H/T to Ezra aka NYMBlog for this.


  1. The difference between the game and cycling is that anyone can choose to ride a bike. Drivers may want altruistic punishment of cyclists, but it’s self imposed if they continue to drive for short trips if they were easily able to bike it instead. Self-inflicted rage…

    PS Is there no longer a way to receive comment notifications without commenting first?

  2. Re: filtering forward angering drivers. I think it’s definitely part of the issue. I had a co-worker tell me the other day that once he’s passed a bike, having to pass it again annoys him and he doesn’t give the rider as much consideration the second time (his euphemistic way of saying he passes closer).

    But even if you don’t filter forward it’s entirely possible that drivers may have to pass you more than once, such as on routes where bike lanes disappear and re-appear and the traffic is heavy.

  3. @ladyfleur, that’s a very good point, and why I usually don’t filter. But that doesn’t mean that I will pleasantly wait in traffic for several light cycles if I have the ability to safely move up and continue along. One road in particular here only lets 5-10 cars get through on the light during rush hour, so I frequently filter past the 30 or so cars waiting so I don’t have to wait in gridlock that I don’t need to be a part of.

    But filtering as a rule is rather pointless. The cyclist won’t get to the destination much faster, especially if higher traffic routes intersect the road anyway and you will be forced to stop for a 2 minute light down the road negating any benefit you gained from filter. Which leads to why it’s often pointless for car drivers to wizz past me only to end up a light or two down the road together…

  4. Motorcycle riders get to squeeze between lanes to get through stuck traffic too. People may think motorcyclists are nutty, but they don’t seem to get the hate that self-propelled bikers get. I’m going with your “because we’re different” theory. As racism and homophobia become taboo, the haters need to hate somebody, and “anticyclism” is still socially acceptable.

  5. A worthy subject and some seemingly useful things to say about it. But I think it is completely off the mark and is yet more anti-cyclist bs. Perhaps because the deeper reasons for motorists being enraged by cyclists go deeper than most people are comfortable with.

    The author claims motorists carefully adhere to a complex code of road rules, while cyclists don’t. This is utterly false. Motorists are ALWAYS breaking the rules. They don’t speed? Gimme a break. Motorists break the rules more than cyclists do, and pose a greater hazard at the same time.

    The author builds a case that cyclists are freeloaders. Well, cyclists pay taxes too, require less infrastructure and do far less damage than motorists.

    In fact, motorists are subsidized by people such as cyclists (in an imaginary world where cyclists don’t also drive cars and motorists don’t also ride bicycles).

    No, the thesis is utterly misguided. The real reason motorists hate cyclists is twofold.

    The first reason is that motorists know cyclists are doing something they themselves should be doing, but lack the character to do.

    The second reason is visceral – brainstem stuff. Society is full of pecking order behaviour. It goes back to the survival game in the jungle. Cycling in traffic is like a dog laying on its back in the midst of a hostile pack. The supine dog is voluntarily exposing itself to being disemboweled. Totally crazy. Not only do cyclists trigger an attack response from motorists because cyclists obviously represent a lower level of power (throw less weight around), but even worse, they have voluntarily put themselves in that position. This is why motorists think cyclists DESERVE to be punished. Because, as the motorists say, the cyclists are either “crazy” and/or “just asking for it”.

    So the author is simply yet another anti-cyclist militant motorists. Like the guy who uses a dash cam to record instances of cyclists breaking the rules, and posts the videos on a website. Has he ever tried to video motorists breaking the rules? It’s so common you’d have to post video of almost every motorist using the roads. Simply impossible.

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