Road Rage is Altruistic?!

April 29, 2009 at 2:11 pm (By Amba)

Short of the murderous kind, yep, says Professor Herbert Gintis, emeritus at the University of Massachusetts:

Mostly people think altruism is goody-goody or warm and fuzzy. But, the biggest part of making society work is needing to retaliate, wanting to hurt people who hurt you. It’s much more important than the precondition to cooperate, because if you don’t have punishment, you can’t get cooperation. Strong reciprocity can be cooperation and conditional punishment.

So, we believe the heart of altruism is not only the willingness to cooperate and help — empathy and caring for others — but also this negative side of human nature: retaliation or retribution.

Let me give you an example that you would not even think is altruistic normally, but is: road rage.

What exactly do you mean by road rage and how is that altruistic?

Pathologically, it’s when somebody behaves badly on the road and you shoot them. Usually, though, when people drive through a yellow light or are in a wrong lane, people honk their horns, shake their fists at them. Our argument is that this behavior of getting angry at another driver, who you’re never going to see again, has strong reciprocity. It helps keep people honest.

If you don’t drive the proper way, some guy honks his horn and you feel humiliated; you’ve done a bad thing and you got caught. But he didn’t do it because he cared about keeping people honest. He honked his horn because he was pissed at you. This is true in subjective altruism. By honking your horn or yelling at someone for doing a bad thing, this is an altruistic act. It might have cost you something, not much. But it keeps the rules of the road going. It keeps people honest, so it’s an altruistic act.

You’re upholding the norm of fairness by hurting someone who was unfair. But you didn’t do it because you wanted to uphold a norm for the group. You did it because you were angry at the guy.

Calling Michael, um, Grant:  hey guy, now you can feel good about feeling good about yourself on the road!


  1. Callimachus said,

    I don’t think this goes deeply enough. But the only evidence I have to make my point is personal and anecdotal. It seems to me, then, that the people who get enraged while driving are also likely to be people who also tend to break the rules of the road. I remember getting road-raged 25 years ago by someone I cut off while merging onto a highway: my car was in his way principally because he was driving 90 mph.

    Furthermore, I don’t think a tap on the horn rises to the level of “road rage.”

    The sophistry here is it presumes all road-ragers are law-abiding citizens flipped into rage by anarchists.

  2. chickenlittle said,

    “So, we believe the heart of altruism is not only the willingness to cooperate and help — empathy and caring for others — but also this negative side of human nature: retaliation or retribution.”

    At the risk of sounding oblique, or even insulting to those who have a background in chemistry, the first thing that came to my mind was a long ago seminar by a physical chemist talking about how enzymes work. There’s almost an anthropomorphic notion that, at the molecular level, an enzyme actively brings two or more things together spatially and with perfect timing in the right way, just like a good active facilitator would.

    The lecturer’s point, though, was that the enzyme acted by blocking all but one of possible avenues of reaction between the two or more things, which were able to react together differently or with other molecules. That is to say, the enzyme actually worked in a negative way, by blocking all the undesirable pathways which the two or more things could follow. This was hardly a novel point, but in context (he was describing calculational results) it sounded really novel.

    After the lecture, I had a chance to speak with him one-on-one and I compared his results to some ideas that I recalled as a student, wherein molecules are arranged in solution by virtue of being blocked from having some orientations. Then, and being a relatively new parent at the time, I amused him by saying that parenting young children was rather similar, i.e., one directs a child by actively blocking what one don’t want them to do. I suppose it’s kind of similar with pets too.

    Perhaps what the author of the road rage article is getting at is related: road rage on the freeway is altruistic because we actively and positively want to prevent things that could happen.

  3. Donna B. said,

    I had problems with the idea that the person you honked at because they broke a rule felt humiliated or sad about it… most likely they respond to the honk with the finger.

  4. amba12 said,

    chickenlittle: I do get what you are driving at. (I think.) It’s also akin to how learning a human language as a baby is backwards to what you might think. Babies babble all possible sounds, then most of them are gradually eliminated. In other words, remarkably many things are accomplished by winnowing down the number of possibilities. Neurons, or more to the point dendrites and synapses, in the brain are also “pruned,” and one theory of autism is that they’re not — that there are too many. . . . The whole process of getting a life as a young person is not so much of choosing your path as of eliminating many possible paths. The same is true of getting married. We could go on and on!

    Cal, Donna: I have yet another take on road rage that I think is related to both of yours. I think many people become obnoxious and antisocial when they’re in their cars, who might not be when they were on their feet or their seats. I myself feel more impatient when driving a car, although I don’t give in to it and I am astonished by the irrational self-importance of people who think it makes a difference whether they get wherever 30 seconds sooner or later. Manners mostly completely fly out the window, and many drivers would almost as soon kill you as let you cut in ahead of them. Weirdly, an exception is an “alternate merge” where the rules are so simple and clear that people comply as formally as if they were dancing a minuet.

    So what is going on?? For one thing, being at the wheel of a heavy, fast machine gives you a sense of untrammeled power and freedom that it’s then very irritating to have trammeled. The omnipotent speed and convenience is intoxicating and tantalizing — so close to being absolute, if it weren’t for those other dolts — and sort of hypnotic, too. This latter point just occurred to me this moment: drivers who get in your way are breaking your rhythm, your trance.

    There’s something else that’s revealed by the alternate merge (and also by people’s behavior, for the most part, at stoplights and traffic circles): there’s something anarchic, ruleless and wild-west about driving on the highway that brings out competitive, dog-eat-dog instincts. Hobbesian. It has to do with getting your fair share: the only way to do so is to keep the other guy from taking it from you. At an alternate merge or stoplight, the rules insure that everyone will endure an equal measure of inconvenience and everyone will get their turn. On the highway, we’re at the mercy of dominance and selfishness. Here’s where I can see the professor’s point. But there are two kinds of road rage, really: that of those who are trying to dominate by any means necessary, and that of those who resent being dominated. The prof is only talking about the second kind.

  5. chickenlittle said,

    You got what I meant exactly! And the lecturer said the same thing to me that day. That’s either really uncanny or I made a trivial point.

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