Unsurprisingly, most Americans frown upon antisocial behavior. Stealing people’s stuff, bending food safety rules, or smoking in large crowds tend to generate a lot of stern reactions.
But get behind the wheel of a car, and all that disapproval tends to melt away.
That’s because a lot of us suffer from a malady called “car brain” — though Ian Walker, a professor of environmental psychology at Swansea University in Wales, prefers to call it “motonormativity.” This is the term coined by Walker and his team to describe the “cultural inability to think objectively and dispassionately” about how we use cars.
A lot of us suffer from a malady called “car brain”
Think of it like “heteronormativity,” the idea that heterosexual couples “automatically, but inappropriately, assume all other people fit their own categories,” but for cars.
Walker noticed that people tend to have a giant blindspot when it comes to certain behaviors associated with driving, whether it’s speeding, carbon emissions, traffic crashes, or any other of the vast litany of negative external effects that result from a culture that caters to automobile drivers.
“One of the things you notice if you spend your career trying to get people to drive less is people don’t like driving less,” Walker said in an interview. “We said, well, let’s try and measure this. Let’s just demonstrate the extent to which the population as a whole will make excuses, will give special freedom to the context of driving.”
To accomplish this, he devised a series of statements aimed at rooting out these unconscious biases. The statements were separated into two categories: one about cars and driving and another with key words and phrases replaced to make it about some other activity. An independent polling firm was contracted to find a sampling of 2,157 adults in the UK, who were then asked to either agree or disagree. Half were given the car-related statements, while the other half presented with the non-car ones.
“One of the things you notice if you spend your career trying to get people to drive less is people don’t like driving less.”
For example, people were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: “People shouldn’t smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the cigarette fumes.” Then they were asked to respond to a parallel statement about driving: “People shouldn’t drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the car fumes.”
While three-fourths of respondents agreed with the first statement (“People shouldn’t smoke...”), only 17 percent agreed with the second (“People shouldn’t drive...”).
Another statement addressed values around theft of personal property. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “If somebody leaves their belongings in the street and they get stolen, it’s their own fault for leaving them there and the police shouldn’t be expected to act,” as well as the parallel statement, “If somebody leaves their car in the street and it gets stolen, it’s their own fault for leaving it there and the police shouldn’t be expected to act.”
While three-fourths of respondents agreed with the first statement (“People shouldn’t smoke...”), only 17 percent agreed with the second (“People shouldn’t drive...”)
Only 8 percent of people disagreed with the first statement, while 55 percent of people disagreed with the second one.
Similar outcomes were discovered in questions about food and health safety, alcohol consumption, and workplace injuries. People were less tolerant of bad behavior that didn’t involve a car and vastly more tolerant of similar-sounding behaviors that involved driving.
For Walker, this disconnect is where motonormativity comes into play. “We wanted to demonstrate that when you talk about driving, people are not applying their normal values,” he said.
The smoking question in particular fascinated Walker for several reasons. For decades, society tolerated — even encouraged — public smoking. But then a growing awareness around public health risks associated with secondhand smoke, combined with harsher government regulations, led to a shift in public perception. The same could eventually hold true for driving, he said.
For Walker, this disconnect is where motornormativity comes into play
“The fact that smoking has shifted so much, to where almost everybody we spoke to said no, that’s not acceptable — those same people wouldn’t have said that 20 years ago,” Walker said. “And so the smoking and driving comparison interests me because it shows us where we could get to in the future if people’s minds start to change.”
Given how entrenched car culture is in countries around the world, it may take a lot longer to change people’s minds about driving than it did with cigarettes. For one, we don’t tend to view driving through the lens of public health, which shields most of us from thinking about the societal harms and inequities associated with car use.
That’s because, for most people, driving is a convenience. And because it’s easy, we tend to assume it’s part of the natural order to drive. That’s why there’s so much hostility around cycling and alternate forms of transportation: because, for many people, it challenges the natural order of driving.
“Not only do people do what the world makes easy, but because it feels easy, people conclude that it’s right,” Walker said.
Updated February 1st, 10:17AM ET: The phrase coined by Ian Walker and his team is “motonormativity.” A previous version of this story spelled it incorrectly.