CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

Give and Take

In Traffic I talk a bit about the curiously positive feeling you can get when you are “let in” by a driver with a friendly wave — perhaps, as some have suggested, triggering some inherent impulse towards reciprocal altruism, even though we’ll never see that driver again. Conversely, if that same driver rudely cuts in front of you with nary a glance, you might have a desire to punish them in some way, as if they would somehow learn not to mess with you the next time (even if there won’t be a next time). One question is: Were these feelings of positivity and negativity essentially equal, even if the value of the “transaction” (i.e., the right of way) was the same?

A new study by Boaz Keysar and colleagues at the University of Chicago, titled “Reciprocity is Not Give and Take: Asymmetric Reciprocity to Positive and Negative Acts,” (pdf here) published in the December issue of Psychological Science, based on a number of trials of experimental “giving” and “taking” games in the lab and on the street, suggests that we are much more willing to “escalate” our response in the face of “negative reciprocity” (e.g., when we’re cut off) than we’re willing to reward someone in the face of positive reciprocity. Indeed, our perception of the exchange is skewed by this dynamic. “Because giving appears to be inherently more generous than taking, an objectively more selfish giver can sometimes be seen as more generous than an objectively selfless taker.” The authors conclude by suggesting a new mantra: “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours, but if you take my eye, I will take both of yours.”

In a University of Chicago release, Keysar made an explicit parallel to traffic:

“For instance in driving, if you are kind and let someone go in front of you, that driver may be considerate in response. But if you cut someone off, that person may react very aggressively, and this could escalate to road rage.” (of course, one problem is that it’s objectively more difficult to reward someone in traffic — you can drive courteously or safely, but that’s what you’re supposed to already be doing — than it is to find ways to harass them).

Things get worse when the offender doesn’t realize how much their offense is being felt by their victim. “The one receiving the slight cannot imagine that the slighter lacks that appreciation. And so it goes, because of such differential perception, they respond more and more strongly. Small slights could escalate to unbelievable, irrational feuds.”

Which might lead, just spitballin’ here, to something like this:

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 at 8:37 am and is filed under Traffic Psychology, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “Give and Take”

  1. D42 Says:

    Hm.. asymmetrical communication.. it must be why Tom leaves the field open, but never answers his e-mails / engages in dioalogue.. it creates a lot of noise, which makes Tom Look like a stormtrooper.. kicking up the dust in the setting sun, over crashing civilizations.

    Ahem.

  2. D42 Says:

    Something like the “ancient Chinese” who ran around curing themselves with “flowers..” interesting, and very peculiar.. albeit rather flat. Kinda like na’an bread.

  3. D42 Says:

    Mm.. blueberry pankackes. Mm.

  4. D42 Says:

    That’s why I don’t believe in “give and take” you know. A harmonious social order {vs. merely drama which is what we have} is based on participants growing and giving off extra.. and the relationships are not based on this exchange of 50/50.. or is it 20/20.. but on what we all -like- to do.

    More seriously speaking, the phenomenon is discussed as dislocation and attrition / friction. Which you mentioned in one of your posts.. earlier {about wasting time}.

  5. D42 Says:

    Bourgeoisie = wasting time = money. The economy has hit rock bottom.

  6. Vancouver Island Dodge Says:

    “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours, but if you take my eye, I will take both of yours.”

    Haha. Nice logic. :p

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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