Commentary: Videos of bad driving and car accidents - why we just can’t seem to look away
Our fascination with videos of bad driving show how we are hardwired to engage with negative stimuli and seek validation, but this can spiral downwards, says SUSS psychology lecturer Victor Seah.
SINGAPORE: Living in Singapore, our cars are likely to be our most expensive material possession, second only to our homes. But what’s inside our cars is far more priceless – our children and loved ones.
When we drive, safety is paramount as there is plenty at stake. Which is why bad driving and car accidents captivate us.
Social media pervade our lives and there is no shortage of shocking dashboard camera clips. We have a universal platform to broadcast every instinctive reaction to the world, we feel anonymous and less inhibited. The result? We comment more, upload more and view more.
We see this when recent dashcam footage of an Upper Paya Lebar road incident quickly went viral this week: A car, pursued by the Traffic Police, stopped and suddenly reversed, colliding into a traffic police officer’s motorbike.
Many of us must have watched it wide-eyed on the news or road-related social media groups like Roads.sg, Beh Chia Lor, or SG Road Vigilante. It chalked up hundreds of thousands of views within 24 hours.
WHY WE CAN’T SEEM TO LOOK AWAY
Psychologists attribute this fascination to “negativity bias”. Evolutionarily, our ancestors survived by paying attention to negative information, such as whether a strange new animal is a threat.
Today, we still spend more time and mental energy when looking at negative stimuli. Laboratory studies show we tend to learn better when punished than when rewarded. In decision-making, even when the intensity of information is equal, negative information has a greater influence than positive information on our judgements.
In other words, we are hardwired to pay more attention to bad driving. We can’t look away because such videos meet our psychological needs.
We crave validation. Passing judgement that someone drives badly is not enough, we find support for our social media posts in comments, shares, and likes from other netizens.
Seeing bad driving also validates our own driving ability – a socially desirable attribute. Studies have consistently found that drivers, regardless of gender, age or road accident history, consider themselves safer and more competent than average.
In one study, 98 per cent of respondents rated themselves as above average drivers – even though this is statistically impossible. When we view videos of bad driving, we engage in downward comparisons reinforcing our belief that our driving is above average.
Bad driving is a violation of societal norms – explicit and implicit rules about how to behave in society. So engaging with such videos appeals to our sense of fairness and justice.
This is why we leave shaming comments on a video titled “SXX1234X weaving in and out of traffic along PIE” - because these offenders have been exposed as recklessly breaching those norms and endangering passengers or pedestrians. Public shaming is a form of virtue signalling.
DISPLACING OUR FRUSTRATIONS ON BAD DRIVERS
COVID-19 has a role to play too. People in Singapore are generally feeling more stressed, exhibiting more angry behaviour and feeling the effects of greater inequality, because of the pandemic.
In response, we sometimes engage in displacement - directing our anger and frustrations on less threatening, more readily available targets.
Bad drivers caught on camera, especially luxury cars as a visible marker of socio-economic status, may be particularly attractive targets. To the average road user, a luxury car signals the driver isn’t “one of us”.
Once considered as an out-group, research indicates we exaggerate the differences between us and them. We interpret information about them in a biased manner - “they are not rule-abiding like us”, “they crashed because they are all bad drivers” and reinforce the positive views of ourselves.
This in-group positivity is what creates a community among active members of road-related social media groups.
While a sense of community is well-known for positive effects, one danger is group polarisation, where groups intensify members’ initial leanings. In this case, engaging with videos of bad driving and car accidents can intensify opinions on how bad the driving and the driver is, and the extent to which they should be punished.
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This may lead to community members seeking to take matters into their own hands, by doxxing for example. One may argue sharing and commenting on such videos allow people to “vent”.
Unfortunately, research suggests that venting is ineffective and may even reinforce the initial anger and frustration.
This brings up more concerns. Our perspective tends to narrow if our indignations are reinforced and biases confirmed. We interpret the same information differently and are more sensitive to negative information. We become more attuned to and are more likely to seek out evidence for bad driving.
We perceive driving in Singapore more negatively and judge it to be more unsafe than it actually is - because memories of bad driving are more readily accessible.
LEARNING TO WITHHOLD JUDGEMENT
What can we do to avoid going down this rabbit hole?
We can look at Noble Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s characterisation of how our brain works in two systems: Type 1 thinking – fast and automatic, and Type 2 thinking – deliberate and effortful.
When we rush to comment on a video or publicly shame someone on social media, we often engage in Type 1 fast thinking and intuitive decision making. The key is to guard against this trigger-happy instinct.
Instead, let’s pause, withhold immediate judgement and try Type 2 thinking. Were there environmental factors that we haven’t considered? Does the video show the full story of the incident? Is what we watch truly representative of our full driving experience or just another eye-catching entertaining clip we can shake our head at after an uneventful drive home?
Although we have a negativity bias, the documented transformational effects of positive acts and thoughts can be powerful.
Just as venting can lead to a downward spiral, acts of graciousness and considerate driving can lead to a virtuous cycle.
I still remember an incident several years ago. I was queuing to merge onto the CTE when a car slowed down deliberately to let me in. I put my hand out to convey my thanks before easing up to let another car merge. Within a few moments, that car gave way to another stranger too.
It was a glorious, virtuous moment and I just couldn’t look away.
Dr Victor Seah is Deputy Head, Psychology Programme, School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.