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The psychology of driving: sex and speed

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You see a bald businessman driving in his brand spanking new Porsche and think “Yep, definitely having a mid-life crisis”. A Burberry clad 17 year old lad driving a pimped up Ford Fiesta, “Boy racer”. The 40 something woman aggressively hitting the road in her Audi Q7, “Anger issues”. Psychological and sociological research has revealed that the population at large does draw conclusions about the personality of car owners from their vehicles.

Judging people is ingrained in us. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people, it’s human nature, and provides a way to identify, classify and sort our place within our immediate environment.  Sure, for some people, cars are simply a way to get around. But for others, there’s a more complicated relationship at play, fraught with power and desire, memories and nostalgia, anxiety or pleasure. More and more, scientists are fixing their headlights on the psychology of driving.

So why do we buy the cars we do?

What we drive often has to do with that other drive (yep, sex), according to psychologist Geoffrey Miller, PhD. He compares the ‘typical’ male BMW owner to the bowerbird of Australia, which builds elaborate nests to attract a mate. As for the ‘typical’ woman driver, her Mustang convertible displays openness and assertiveness. Miller states that whether consciously or subconsciously, humans use cars to promote their attractiveness as mates. “Cars are one of the most public displays we make to create a first impression.”

Much of the time, cars are often parked together, in company spaces where you work, or outside the supermarket, these public displays allow for everyone to compare your car with neighbouring vehicles. Others may not be able to see your big, expensive home, but you can bring your flash car to the supermarket and mark your territory there instead.

A 2007 study by Geoffrey Miller found that men interested in picking up women were more likely to spend a lot on a flash car. Miller speculates that women will often conclude that a man driving an expensive sports car is likely not husband material. On the other hand, young, married couples express their feeling of nurturing through purchasing eco-friendly cars or homey minivans.

Dr. Leon James has done extensive research in the psychology of driving. He says in our car culture, drivers idealise their vehicles and even lend them human qualities. Whether the car is sporty or an off-roader, the owner seeks attributes that reflect their self-image. “People construct an ideal in their mind of the perfect car, and those attributes are transferred to its driver as well,” James said, also pointing out the negative attributes we associate with people who own dirty or run-down cars. He makes reference to something we’ve all seen before. A hand written ‘wash me’, curiously written from the car’s point of view.

Sociological research has revealed that the population at large does make assumptions about the personality of drivers from the cars they drive. For example, the longer the bonnet of a car, the more arrogant and macho the driver is judged to be. The research also shows that the larger the boot of car the older the driver will be assumed to be. The thinking behind this is presumably that if you have an MPV, for example, you’re likely to have a bigger family, therefore you’re not likely to be in your twenties. Car manufacturers still appear to make the assumption that men tend to make family car buying decisions. This is fact isn’t the case. Research shows that it is often the woman that makes these decisions, wanting something bigger and more reliable for their families, and to ease the stress of the school run.

Don Draper driving a car

Research has also shown that a man will consider spending more than he can afford to get a motor whose only advantage is an ability to reach 60mph a couple of seconds faster than a much cheaper alternative. There is something very masculine about you if you are prepared to spend £20,000 to reduce your 0-60mph time from six seconds to four- that’s £10,000 per second, besides, taking someone back to your place in a Maserati promises so much more performance than the same trip in a Mini Metro.

The kind of car with which a driver chooses to escape from mundane reality into his vivid fantasy life is also revealing. 4x4s are traditionally marketed as the vehicle that will allow you to practically climb a mountain, which gives the driver a sense of strength and skill. Psychologically speaking, the 4×4 driver doesn’t want to drive past you, but rather he wants to go over you- like the mountain the vehicle was designed for. Leon James- a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and an expert on road rage- notes that cars create a sense of “emotional territory”.

He says “We feel angry when we sense our territory is being invaded… We are in our castle and feel we are on the frontier,” he says. “And if you look at car commercials they tend to encourage this ‘we can go where no one else has gone’ mentality.” The more cars are tied to ideas of freedom and self-esteem, the more they promote territoriality. The result, he says, is that people feel repeatedly insulted while they drive, provoking aggressive reactions to routine incidents. Road rage aside, exploration into the psychology of driving has allowed us make evaluations about why people drive other types of car. For example, someone driving a convertible, buys a convertible because they want to be seen by passers by, want to be admired. Similarly, the man that drives a sports car, psychologically speaking, chooses that car so it will only have room for a female companion.

As for people buying new cars, doing this will often signal your recent success, but often can reveal your insecurity; everyone knows you’re showing off, and maybe you have something to prove. We secretly criticise and judge others as they accompany us on the road. Whether it might be the little bit of jealousy we feel about the money someone has to afford their Porsche, or the judgement we pass when we see someone driving along with a car with a trailing exhaust. Psychology has shown us that there is in fact a lot of truth in these judgments. Our cars are, for many, a representation of our place in the hierarchy of society, ultimately fulfilling a fundamentally animal instinct. Whether or not people think someone’s car says something good or bad about them, everybody thinks differently. I wrote about what I though my VW Polo said about me in my previous post. Let me know if you agree!

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