Thursday, January 3, 2008

Beep, beep! Beep, beep! Yeah!: Multiple Personalities and Driving

There's one place I know of where personality changes, instantly and consistently. The place I'm referring to isn't really a specific location--it's more of a situation, or a dimension. This powerful place, existing outside the bounds of most theories of personality psychology, is none other than traffic. I used to think that it was simply Los Angeles traffic that elicited this kind of phenomenon, but no, it exists in New York, Mexico, Europe...anywhere where more than two cars share a road.

I supposed I'm rather new to this hidden dimension known only to drivers. I got my driver's license a little less than 3 years ago when making the metamorphosis from car-less urban pedestrian to, well, an urban driver. I quickly learned that the on ramp to freeways or highways was really a porthole to a world of battles of Civil War proportions. In these battles, there are no loyalties, no rules, and surely no rationality. Everyone is out of for themselves. Rationality is relevant. Everyone is right from within their cars, outside the car is wrong, wrong, wrong. Instead of bayoneted corpses, idle vehicles sit stalled in defeat. Winning is movement--keep moving, no matter what.

With the slam of a door, click of a seatbelt, and the hum of a small, but reliable, engine, my mind shifts. I am normally a nice, empathetic, and relatively quiet person--qualities necessary for the kind of work I do. Behind the wheel of a car is another story. A metamorphosis takes place while I zip away, feeling the power of the vehicle in my hands. Fast, must drive fast. The sight of another vehicle sparks a competitive fire in me and my blood pressure rises. A quick glimpse of myself in the rear view mirror scares me--who is that maniac? I curse at the drop of a hat, saying things that would make dirty, scurvy ridden pirates blush. I try to pass anyone who's "in my way." I get a sick joy for successfully pulling a tight U-turn without giving in to what would be safer as a K-turn. I think I even look different when I drive. My brow is steadily furrowed, completing a very unattractive mean looking scowl. Parking is a whole other story. Let's not get into parking.

There's always been controversy regarding multiple personality disorders in the field of psychology. So for those who don't believe that multiple personality disorder exists, and there are many within the academic/scientific community of this persuasion, I have evidence to prove otherwise. I guess it comes down to attribution theory, maybe. Attributing a person's behaviors to a situation, instead of to stable personality traits within them, is considered the Fundamental Attribution Error. When I am in a car I become insane--pretty situation specific. But the sheer fact that I have the capacity to behave this way suggests that perhaps, some part of me, is this she-Hulk that comes out to play when behind the steering wheel--a different personality. Anyway, I've seen this ghastly Jeckel and Hyde dance with other fellow drivers. It's not just me...I swear.

Is this just road rage, you ask? Um, not really, but it's close. I honestly feel like there's a difference between those who have minor lapses into mental instability within the confines of their cars and those who actually follow people and/or get out of their cars and threaten bodily harm. I kind of go batty within the legal limits by saying nasty things that only those in my car can hear, having an insatiable need to pass slow cars, and, on occasion, flipping off someone. But road rage, in the truest sense is another animal. In 2006, road rage received an official medical diagnosis known as Intermittent Explosive Disorder, which is actually a category of behavior disorders that includes domestic violence and just about any kind of rage you can think of. Again, as with most new diagnoses, there's been a lot of debate whether this is truly a medical condition. However, because it can be treated with medication it must be biological, right? Um, yeah. While it may be true the anyone would mellow out from taking anti-depressants, and perhaps those with explosive tempers would benefit most from this, it remains a thin argument to say that this is a medical condition, if not psychiatric. I would say that it is a maladaptive behavior, not a condition.

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