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Hidden Meaning of Bumper Stickers

It doesn't matter if the bumper sticker is as innocuous as "My Kid Is an Honor Student" or as angry as "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student." Cars with bumper stickers have aggressive drivers behind the wheel.

And it's not just bumper stickers. Cars decked out with window decals and personalized license tags also point to a driver inside who has road rage. That's the startling word from a study by Colorado State University social psychologist William Szlemko, who claims these are "territorial markers." These drivers don't just get upset when someone cuts in front of them, but also tend to use their cars to express their rage by honking and tailgating, reports The Washington Post.

Since aggressive driving could be responsible for up to two-thirds of all U.S. traffic accidents that involve injuries, this is a serious warning. Szlemko's team found that drivers who personalize their cars acknowledge they are aggressive drivers, but typically they have no idea how much higher their levels of aggression are, compared with people whose cars are not adorned with visible markers.

This is not to say that drivers who don't personalize their cars don't get angry. Of course, they do. The difference is that they tend to not act out that anger. Instead, they fume or mentally call the other drive a jerk and then forget about it. "The more markers a car has, the more aggressively the person tends to drive when provoked," Szlemko told Post reporter Shankar Vedantam. "Just the presence of territory markers predicts the tendency to be an aggressive driver."

Territoriality is key. Drivers with road rage tend to think of the public streets and highways as their own. It's "my street" or "my lane." Yes, they really do think they own the road.

But what do bumper stickers have to do with it? Szlemko says that people mentally have three types of territorial spaces:

  • Personal territory, such as a home or a bedroom.
  • Temporary territory, such as an office cubicle or a gym locker.
  • Public territory, such as a park bench, walking trail or roads and highways.
We decorate our homes to mark them as our own and make them unique from others. When we do the same to our cars by adorning them with bumper stickers and personalized license tags, we are saying the same thing: This is deeply personal space or primary territory. Cars are unique since the inside is personal territory, but they travel in public territory. Szlemko concludes that bumper sticker-drivers forget they are in public territory when they are on the road since the immediate cues around them signal they are in deeply private space.

"If you are in a vehicle that you identify as a primary territory, you would defend that against other people whom you perceive as being disrespectful of your space," co-author Paul Bell told the Post. "What you ignore is that you are on a public roadway. You lose sight of the fact you are in a public area and you don't own the road."

The study findings were published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

--From the Editors at Netscape

 
 
 
 
  
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