Red racing seats, shiny steel hub-caps, stickers, lots of them, celebrating surfing clubs, football teams or sharing a rude joke. According to William Szlemko and colleagues this kind of vehicular adornment is a sign of territoriality - these drivers are sending out a powerful signal that this hunk of metal is theirs.
And yet roads are public, not private, places. Szlemko's team wondered if the combination of a highly territorial driver (as betrayed by their penchant for car stickers) on a public road could be a recipe for what they call "boundary confusion" - muddle over what's private and what's public, thus leading to a greater likelihood of road rage.
Across a series of three studies, hundreds of undergraduates with their own cars reported on how many bumper and window stickers they had, plus other forms of personalisation, and also reported their tendency towards aggressive behaviour on the road.
Drivers with more stickers and other forms of personalisation tended to be more attached to their cars, confirming the researchers' suspicion that vehicular adornment is a sign of territoriality. Crucially, drivers with more personalised cars also admitted to driving more aggressively, including tailgating and ramming. Sticker lovers also admitted that they were less likely to respond constructively to frustration on the road, for example by trying to drive more safely. Perhaps surprisingly, the content of stickers made no difference to these associations.
"The findings suggest that road rage and aggressive driving may be a result, in part, of misapplication of social norms for territorial defence when there is boundary confusion between the public territory of a road and the primary territory of a personal vehicle," the researchers concluded.
Of course, as acknowledged by the researchers, these findings were correlational (so it's possible some other factor such as "hostility" predicts both love for stickers and aggressive driving). Also, personalisation of cars only explained a small portion of the difference in aggression between drivers.
Szlemko, W.J., Benfield, J.A., Bell, P.A., Deffenbacher, J.L., Troup, L. (2008). Territorial Markings as a Predictor of Driver Aggression and Road Rage. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(6), 1664-1688. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00364.x
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