road rage

Road Rage and Transference: Traveling Companions

A grisly road accident that seemed to have no specific cause began garnering attention recently when witnesses helped authorities piece together what happened:

Other drivers that had been on the road at the time described two cars that had been engaging in “a deadly road-rage game of cat and mouse,” as cops told a local NBC reporter. One car was aggressively pursuing the other; when one car flipped and crashed, witnesses said, the other one “just kept going.” Police said that the 27-year-old woman’s death was “being treated as a case of road rage.”

What is road rage? It is a disproportionate response, of course. Road rage arises when a minor slight – getting cut off, being tailgated – becomes first a cause, and then a mission. Revenge fantasies which might otherwise evaporate in an instant are made manifest through the mighty instrument of the car itself. Drivers accelerate wildly, jockey for a “winning” position, and trade epithets as best they can.

That road rage is self-evidently dangerous seems unable to discourage its practitioners. Even though this behavior can and does lead to injury or death, these concerns seem to hold no water against the overwhelming compulsion to enact payback.

What is going on here? Feelings this sudden and powerful are rarely just about the present. One psychologist consulted for this story hit the nail on the head:

He says that the psychological root of this behavior is often something called Hostile Attribution Bias—the belief that every accidental injury or threat is purposeful, and personal. People with IED over-personalize every interaction, and then over-react with immediate aggression.

Jargon aside, this description nicely mirrors the notion of transference in psychoanalytic thinking. Whether you want to call this irrational response road rage, IED, or transference, the mechanism is much the same. Deeply emotional memories inform the things we do and feel well into adulthood, imbuing them with resonances that do not always reflect visible reality. If feelings of helplessness were a theme in your childhood, for instance, you might respond in an unduly explosive way to any gesture that causes you to revisit those feelings, no matter how small – a reaction which can look “crazy” to an outside observer.

The only way to unlock how your past may be coloring your present is through psychoanalytic therapy. Here in New York, PPSC is home to dozens of psychotherapists who can help you understand why overwhelming feelings are still dictating your behavior and holding you back – and help you resolve what is behind them.