Car psychology 101: Why do we act differently when we drive?

Amy Bairstow
Amy Bairstow
Car psychology 101: Why do we act differently when we drive?

Have you ever noticed yourself behaving a little… differently when you’re driving? There are a few behaviours we exhibit when in our cars that we might not otherwise, and it turns out there could be legitimate psychological effects behind these behaviours.

Let’s dive into why we might act differently behind the wheel.

In-car karaoke

“Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” - Katy Perry

“Got so many chains they call me Chain-ing Tatum” - Drake

“Yeah, you got that yummy-yum, that yummy-yum, that yummy-yummy.” - Justin Bieber

The car is absolutely the place where you can sing the most embarrassing songs you somehow know every lyric to, at the top of your voice, with no judgement. But why do we do this in the car?

One psychological explanation is that we become less inhibited when we feel anonymous, and our cars give us a sense of anonymity - even when we’re on a crowded highway.

Forgot to turn down the volume at the traffic lights? Never mind - just keep singing your heart out, because you’ll probably never see these people again.

Personal hygiene on the road

As much as cars connect us to the world, they can also feel like our own private spaces. This perception of privacy might also explain why people are so quick to pick their nose or clean their ears while waiting for the lights to change. One WA driver even used nose picking as an excuse for speeding 153 km/h in a 110 km/h zone.

The thing is, we might all be touching our faces while driving more than we think.

A 2021 study from the University of Nottingham found that drivers touch their face an average of 26 times per hour, with the same outcome across different ages and genders.

So here we all are, rubbing our eyes and scratching our noses without even realising. But it might be for good reason, because touching our own faces can help send calming signals to our brain while we’re navigating the roads.

Car clutter

You’re rolling solo on a road trip. Who’s there to judge if you let the empty coffee cups and lolly packets pile up?

It’s interesting that we’re often more likely to let our cleanliness standards slide when it comes to our cars rather than home or work. Perhaps because our cars are less likely to have visitors pop around at a moment’s notice.

In a recent UK study, 60% of drivers said they were embarrassed about the state of their vehicles due to lack of cleanliness.

Young drivers and Tesla drivers were more likely than most to be embarrassed by their car clutter. And 27% of all drivers had even declined to give someone a lift because they were embarrassed by their car's condition. We tend to see our cars as extensions of ourselves, which is why having a messy car could feel like baring our internal chaos to the world.

Luckily, tidying our environments can help to restore our sense of order. So giving your car a birthday could provide an instant mood boost!

Road rage

We’ve all seen it, and a lot of us have felt it. Perhaps if someone’s cut you off you instantly feel like hurling a choice insult their way. Anger while driving is surprisingly common, with an NRMA survey indicating 71% of drivers felt rage on the road in the past year.

We probably wouldn’t get so annoyed if we were standing in line at the post office, so what’s going on here? There could be a few factors at play.

  1. First, we tend to feel very territorial about our cars. We even think of them as our safe havens. This means when it feels like someone is encroaching on that space, it could be sparking something primal in us. One study even found a link between bumper stickers (seen as markers of territory) and aggressive driving. The more a vehicle had been personalised, the more likely it was to have an aggressive driver!

  2. It’s also much easier to depersonalise other road users when we’re in separate vehicles. That perceived sense of anonymity not only lowers our inhibitions, but can also boost aggressiveness. As we’ve probably all seen in comment sections, spending too much time online has much the same effect!

  3. We can also miss a lot of what’s actually happening on the road. We might not have spotted the near-miss on the other side of that car, or see things from the other driver’s perspective. And then thanks to a little thing called fundamental attribution error, we’re more likely to blame other people’s driving behaviour on their flawed personality traits - rather than situational factors.

None of these things are an excuse for road rage, but they do go some way to explain why we can act differently when we’re on the road. Interestingly, research has also indicated drivers drive less aggressively when they have passengers in the car. Maybe carpooling is the key to calmer roads.

So - does driving change your personality?

Perhaps driving changes our situational responses more than our actual personalities. Next time you’re out on the road, it could be worth considering whether the factors above are coming into play. If they are, just remember: you’re humaning, as humans do. And if the time has come for a mood-boosting car upgrade, why not begin your search with Carma?

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