Driving, Jekyl and Hyde, and the Stockholm Syndrome

Driving, Jekyl and Hyde, and the Stockholm Syndrome

You may remember this classic, but painfully accurate, cartoon:

And now, have a read of this familiar tale from Citylab’s Sarah Goodyear. Here are some highlights:

A car is often—even usually—the wrong tool for the job in a dense urban setting. And using the wrong tool makes you frustrated and impatient….

The time it took me to become a monstrous ball of impatience: about 10 minutes. Just add car….

I could feel it transforming me second by second from a person who loves my city and the people in it into a detached and unhappy observer of street life…

You know this to be true. Everyone has experienced it. No one would voluntarily describe themselves as the jerkwad behind the wheel that they often are, but it’s happened to all of us, some more than others.

The part of this that is a new insight to me, though, is the Stockholm Syndrome part. We’re not forced to be in our cars, kept against our will quite like an actual hostage is, but once in traffic we are stuck there all the same. It’s awfully similar in a lot of ways, as you shall see.

Stockholm Syndrome: “a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with the captors. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.”

Our cars (personal vehicles generally, but I’ll just use “cars”) play the captors, whereas traffic is the social context in which this comparison make sense. Your car parked in the driveway isn’t an unpleasant place to be (unless it’s really hot or really cold). Your car in traffic, more often than not, involves stress, and something that we generally want to be rid of as soon as possible. Why else would we speed, cut people off, not let others merge, not give way to pedestrians or cyclists, honk aggressively, shout, gesture, and so on? Because we enjoy the experience? Likewise, traffic without the car is a different situation. We don’t have the same response to traffic when on foot, bicycle, tram, train, or the bus. The bus is slightly worse than cycling, but it’s not quite the same as driving. Could this all merely be because personal motorised vehicles are the most plentiful on our roads, and if the tables were turned and cyclists were left sitting in bike-jams then they would be equally as bad a situation to deal with? I don’t know – I’ve been late on the bus before and I’ve certainly been late on the bike often enough, and I haven’t become super aggressive like when given the opportunity to be so in a car. Then, consider this:

Stockholm syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario, but which describes “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.”[4]

Sounds a bit like traffic. The captor or other person here is the car, traffic is the overall hostage situation, and the car is the captor that we end up taking the side of. We detest traffic, but we disassociate the car from it, just as one might disassociate a hostage taker with the general unpleasantness of the hostage situation. We can do this, because, as I said earlier, when you take the car out of traffic, it’s no longer an unpleasant place to be. We know it’s not the car itself. We spend a fortune on our cars and spend more resources on them aside from money, like time spent cleaning them and worrying about their condition or security. People think that the car will make their journey easier or better but it often just adds stress.

Maybe the car does present a specific scenario. People held up in a crowd may get equally frustrated with the lack of advancement, but people held up in a car in a traffic-jam act out their frustrations at those around them. Those on foot do not. “Cyclists can get aggressive too”, you say. Quite right, however, aside from a few social deviants, that’s not got anything to do with the volume of traffic, but rather, their safety being threatened by a dangerous maneuver by another road user. People on foot and bicycles don’t have quite the security blanket around them of locked doors of metal and glass from which to vent their (often self-inflicted) frustrations. Like the hostage, who is on some level detached from the reality of their situation, motorists who are isolated in their vehicles are detached from theirs. Just like Sarah, “I could feel it transforming me second by second from a person who loves my city and the people in it into a detached and unhappy observer of street life…” Like the motorist, a hostage might feel that their captor is sheilding them from something worse than the current situation they find themself in.

Ok, so maybe the analogy doesn’t quite hold up when looking at every variable in every circumstance. It is, however, close enough to make it interesting to think about. Traffic, in a car, is like being held hostage. You are not free to go as and when you please. This is particularly an unpleasant situation to be in for the driver, (it is a fact that passengers don’t get as uptight as drivers, but I can’t be bothered to find the research), who wants to be rid of the situation as soon as possible, but nevertheless this is out of the drivers control. This unpleasant situation is not blamed on the car, but rather, the traffic, yet it is the car that has introduced this situation to the driver. If they had chosen a different mode of transportation, the scenario would be entirely different, with lower stress levels and more opportunity to decide your route, along with the ability to be more fluid in traffic, like water filtering through rocks. Nevertheless, the car is staunchly defended against all wrong doing.

I realise that if you have further to commute than can reasonably be undertaken by walking or cycling, then you must choose a mode of motorised transportation, and even then, sometimes the bus or train is not a good option. For far too many people in cities around the world, however, their commute to work or travels to most other places are well within a reasonable distance to walk or cycle, nevermind public transport options.

There is no negotiator needed to get you out of your hostage situation. Just get out of your car.


Header image: source