Three Un-Fun Facts About the Psychology of Traffic to Read While You’re Stuck in It

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Photo: AMC

It’s just about time for Memorial Day weekend. If you’re one of the lucky ones who escaped the office early to head someplace nice, you may be stuck in traffic at this very moment. What better time to explore the dismal social science of bumper-to-bumper interstates? Here are three not-so-fun facts about traffic.

1. That driver whose “Child is an Honors Student” may want to kill you.
If you find yourself stuck behind a car mummified in bumper stickers, you might want to think twice before honking. A Colorado State University study found drivers who pimp their rides — think decals, vanity plates, even dashboard hula girls — are significantly more likely to exhibit road rage. While you might expect more aggressive drivers to sport nastier vehicular accouterments, there were startlingly similar road rage levels between the stick-figure family decal and “I Don’t Get Mad/I Get Even” types. It all comes down to the fact that people with a propensity for territory marking appear to be a bit more aggressive, say the researchers.

2. You may be cheating on your spouse with your commute.
According to a study from Umea University in Sweden, couples in which one partner’s commute exceeds 45 minutes are 40 percent more likely to get divorced. More time on the road means more stress, boredom, and frustration, often rendering the commuter a crankier and less supportive spouse. But there is hope: If your relationship can stick it out for the first five years, your divorce likelihood falls to only one percent higher than that of non-commuter couples. It’s cruise control from there.

3. You don’t even realize just how much you hate traffic.
Feel like your commute is sucking the joy out of you? That’s because it probably is, according to a study from the University of Basel in Switzerland. Taking on a high-paying job with a miserable commute may pay the bills, but it doesn’t pay off. Those who make less money but have easier commutes tend to feel more satisfied overall, since the unhappiness of a lengthy commute can actually overshadow the pleasure of earning a higher salary. We’re not always the best judges of what will bring us happiness: It’s easy to put a dollar amount on, well, dollars, but the value of spending time with friends and family isn’t quite as tangible.

If you're not depressed enough yet, this 2007 article from The New Yorker offers an excellent overview of what all our car-time does to us. Safe driving, everyone!