The Crazy Psychology Behind Road Rage (and How to Beat It)

All of a sudden, your calm demeanor is replaced by a road warrior honking and gesturing wildly at passing cars. If you suffer from road rage, don’t drive in these states. Ahead, read more about road rage, why everyone seems to have the same affliction, and learn how you can control your emotions on the road.

The road rage mindset

A woman holds her forehead in anger as she drives.

Driving isn’t always easy. | Tostphoto/iStock/Getty Images

According to counseling psychologist, Jerry Deffenbacher, Ph.D., there are certain characteristics that make drivers more likely to have road rage. In studies, Deffenbacher compared high-anger drivers to low-anger drivers. He found certain characteristics present in drivers who partake in road rage. An individual possessing all the traits makes a perfect storm for rage on the road.

Don’t be aggressive

Couple arguing while driving.

Try to keep your cool — for the safety of everyone on the road! | AntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images

Drivers should not be aggressive on the road. According to Deffenbacher’s studies, a driver is more likely to exhibit road rage if they engage in hostile, aggressive thinking. He gave the example of hostile drivers being more likely to insult others on the road. Those same drivers think about retaliating against other drivers, Deffenbacher’s research showed. 

Take more risks

A woman lays her head on the steering wheel.

Take it easy on the road. | Lzf/iStock/Getty Images

Another characteristic in those likely to engage in road rage is taking risks on the road. You know, the person who passes too close behind another vehicle or speeds through yellow lights instead of stopping. In Deffenbacher’s studies, high-anger drivers reported engaging in more risky behavior on the road than low-anger drivers.

Get angry faster

First person point of view of driving a car.

Identifying triggers is key in controlling your aggressive behavior. |

High-anger drivers reported name-calling, swearing, honking, and other common road rage symptoms in Deffenbacker’s studies. Those same drivers averaged two aggressive behaviors a day, in Deffenbacher’s studies. In another study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, almost 80% of drivers “expressed significant anger, aggressive, or road rage behind the wheel at least once in the past year.” Remember, these are only the drivers who are honest about their behavior on the road. The actual numbers are probably much higher.

Anonymity on the road

A woman checks her watch while driving on the road.

Don’t consider yourself invisible just because you’re in your car. | Dolgachov/iStock/Getty Images

A catalyst of road rage is anonymity. Numerous studies show people exhibit more aggressive behavior when their identity is hidden. “You’re in a car, and it’s kind of a weapon, and you’re in a protected environment, and you think no one’s going to be able to get to you,” Emil Coccaro, a professor and psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, told Pacific Standard. We all know of road rage stories where people can in fact, get to you.

Control your anger

A man looking through his side window in anger.

Therapy can help control your anger on the road. |

Steve Albrecht, DBA, wrote in Psychology Today, “road rage is all about uncontrolled anger.” Albrecht suggests seeing a therapist to learn how to control your anger. In an earlier article about road rage, Albrecht also suggested stress breathing and getting perspective. These methods to controlling road rage can be easier said than done but one trick may help reduce road rage immediately.

Don’t drive alone

A couple drives together.

Whenever possible, ride with a loved one or friend. | G-stockstudio/iStock/Getty Images

A simple remedy that may help reduce road rage is driving with a passenger. Bring someone along for the (hopefully, smooth) ride. Slate, referenced journalist and author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, Tom Vanderbilt, who highlighted that passengers don’t get as upset as drivers typically do. According to Slate, Vanderbilt wrote in his book, “studies that have examined the brain activity of drivers and passengers as they engaged in simulated driving have shown that different neural regions are activated in drivers and passengers.”

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